Home Blog Strength Training Programs: How Many Sets and Reps? – Part 2

Strength Training Programs: How Many Sets and Reps? – Part 2

Written on February 20, 2011 at 5:14 pm, by Eric Cressey

In today's post, we've got the second half of a Q&A response regarding how to determine the optimal number of sets and reps for strength exercises.  In case you missed the first installment, be sure to check out Strength Training Programs: How Many Sets and Reps - Part 1.  We pick up with factors 7-13:

7. Whether You’re Trying to Correct Muscle Imbalances – In Part 1 (Bulletpoint 4) of my five-part Correcting Bad Posture series, I talked about how I like to use a 2:1 pull-to-pushing ratio with those who have significant upper body muscle imbalances.  In addition to upping the sets, you can also use higher rep schemes.  So, something like this would be an easy way to accumulate more volume:

A1) Chest-Supported Row - Neutral Grip: 4x8
A2) Low Incline Barbell Press: 3x6

Effectively, you're not only getting more total sets in favor of "postural balance;" you're also getting more reps per set.

8. How Neurally Efficient a Client/Athlete Is – Some athletes – especially those who tend to be of a more slow-twitch muscle fiber predominance – always seem to need to get more sets in on their strength exercises.  This is impacted in a lot of them by a previous history of endurance training – whether it’s high school soccer or a dedicated running career – that made them less efficient at tapping in to high threshold motor units.  The same holds true for female athletes; they always seem to need a little extra volume on strength exercises; it’s almost as if they can’t ramp up to a max as quickly as men.  I don't think you necessarily need to increase reps per set, but definitely ought to consider adding an additional set or two.

9. Whether You’re Trying to Achieve a Metabolic Training Benefit – Some programs use a concept called metabolic resistance training to improve cardiovascular conditioning and increase energy expenditure so that you can burn fat faster. Generally, in programs like these, you’ll need more sets and higher reps to elicit this training effect.

10. Whether You’re Dealing with a Post-Injury Client – In these folks, you want to keep the sets and reps down and gradually ease them back in to things.  So, while a “normal” client might be fluctuating up and down to impose and decrease training stress, respectively, an post-injury client would be gradually increasing the sets and reps to match his/her capacity for loading at a particular time.

That said, you have to be cognizant of giving them sufficient volume to maintain a training effect and keep them from going insane.  So, using the example of someone with shoulder pain, you might have to cut back on pressing movements, but you can really bump up the volume on horizontal pulling sets and reps.

11. What Else You're Doing - The base mesocycle of the Smolov Squat Program goes like this:

Monday: 4x9
Wednesday: 5x7
Friday: 7x5
Saturday: 10x3

Sure, this is a ton of work (and very specific work at that), but quite a few lifters have used it with excellent success.  You know what, though?  Try adding a lot of extra sets and reps for "other stuff" and you'll fail...miserably.  You can't specialize on everything all at once.  If sets and reps go up in one facet of your strength and conditioning program, they have to come down somewhere else.

12. Whether Soreness is of Concern - With our in-season athletes, we want to avoid soreness at all costs.  The easiest way to do this is to avoid changing strength exercises, but this isn't really feasible, as most athletes will get sick and tired of doing the same thing over and over again all season.  So, we need to be careful about strategically substituting new strength exercises during in-season training.  One way to make it go smoothly is to simply keep the sets and reps down in the first round through a new training program.  Let's say that we were doing front squats in-season.  We'd probably go something like this:

Week 1: 1x3 reps
Week 2: 3x3 reps
Week 3: 3x3 reps
Week 4: 2x3 reps (deload)

This leads me to my final point...

13. Whether or Not an Athlete is In-Season - If an athlete is in-season, less is more.  I prefer to have our athletes leave the gym feeling refreshed after their in-season training sessions - so they might be completely finished with a lift after only 8-10 sets of strength exercises in session.  You can get in more sets and reps during the off-season.

That wraps up the primary considerations that come to mind for determining the sets and reps in a strength training program.  Of course, there are many more to consider.  Feel free to share them in the comments section below.

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6 Responses to “Strength Training Programs: How Many Sets and Reps? – Part 2”

  1. myles astor Says:

    Eric:

    What about Prilepin’s tables such as this:

    http://www.maxfitusa.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/prelipins.pdf

  2. Josh Says:

    What do you do with athletes that are 3 sport athletes (High School). I have a hard time backing off as much, otherwise they will never have strength gains and buy into the program. What are some of your thoughts on this type of situation. I have 70 of my 139 athletes that are 2-3 sport athletes, when and how do get these guys to do their heavy periods.

  3. James Says:

    @ Josh

    Personally, if I had a 3 sport athlete, my two priorities would be to 1) not get them sore (as EC stated above and 2) get the \’corrective\’ stuff in – the stuff that will keep them as injury-free as possible. Whether that\’s lots of posterior chain work and rowing movements (which you might be able to go heavy on), or what, but just get doing the stuff that will keep them on the field where they need to be.

    As far as adding strength goes, it all depends (as always) – do the sports crossover, how many games per week, what is the intensity of the games etc. I\’ve seen programs before where basketball players have done their heavy lifting post-game (which may have been from EC\’s blog?) in order to consolidate CNS stress, so that might be an option depending on your situation.

    Also, given that they\’re high school kids, you have to consider total stress, or the \’stress of life\’ as I was told by some smart dude one time in Boston – but it\’s not just game/practice and gym training that places stress on their bodies – but class schedules, exams, assignments, boyfriends/girlfriends, fights with parents.

    Some days they might show up down and out, which is when you might want to back off a bit, and some days they might be ready to chew the pads of your bench press – which is where you might get them going heavier.

    It would certainly be a tough issue to deal with when you have 70 athletes like this, and isn’t a problem I would want to have!

  4. Clement Says:

    I really like the idea behind number 7. I do use it in a different way (1 set of hanging leg raises, a 120s plank and then another set of hanging leg raises as an ab finisher) but it’s certainly an intelligent way to accumulate the volume. Thanks for sharing your great ideas!

  5. Duke Says:

    @clement – im confused what you are correcting w/ hanging leg raises. i never really bought into the “weak ab” theory for any low back pain if thats what you are referring to. fact is, if you are standing erect your abs are strong enough. If you are pressing/squating/deading 2 or more times your body weight, you have STRONG abs!

    i like this segment but i wish it were even more detailed. i get the gist but im still left wondering. to be honest i was always very linear w/ my clients but i have seen (after discovering EC among other greats) that now w/ my more advanced clients we have no where to go but down. i would love to read more about micro and mesocycles and when they actually should be implemented 9maybe this is on here and i have missed it). How can i know when a client is ready? if they are at 1.25-1.5 times body weight in most compound exercises and are looking for hypertrophy and not sport specific gains is this the proper time to switch to some microcycles/deloading if we are no longer seeing progression in weight/reps? Or should i simply be increasing reps/lowering weights or increasing sets and lowering weight or a combination to get over the hump? really the choices are endless but i want to know which has worked best in ECs experience so as to save myself and my clients the time of playing guinea pig. flipping weights and sets or beginning microcycles/deloads and how to i determine when and how to do that? thoughts?

  6. Bota Says:

    In your program of strength for example “Maximum strength” is the weight same in every sets of one exercise for example front squat or it changes ?


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