Strength Training Reps and Sets Schemes
This is probably the best article that I wrote so far. It was originally written and published for EliteFTS website in two parts. Enjoy!
Training objectives -> Training parameters -> Variations & progressions
Regardless of your training objectives (increasing strength in specific lifts, increasing strength overally, bulking up, leaning out, rehabilitation, maintenance, etc), the key training parameters (intensity, volume, frequency, density) could be varied and progressed on different time scales.
Certain variations and progressions in training parameters are more suited towards different training objectives, but there are commonalities between them that we will focus on in the current article.
Training parameters usually involve intensity, volume, frequency and density that could be analyzed and varied on different 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 strength training reps and sets schemes on different time-scales (single workout, week, training block). I know this sounds like a mouthful, but in the next couple of pages everything will be perfectly clear.
Understanding “intensity”
Depending on whom you ask, there are couple of definitions of training intensity. To cut the long story short, I will present what I think to be a pretty neat way to understand training intensity and reconcile different definitions and opinions. In my opinion, intensity has the following three components.
Load – relates to the weight the athlete is lifting in a given exercise, expressed as the percentage of his known 1RM (% of 1RM), e.g., if an athlete is performing bench press with 100kg, and his known 1RM is 110kg, then the load is 90%.
Effort – relates to the athlete’s intent to perform a repetition of a given exercise with maximum possible acceleration and speed in the concentric phase. Effort could be maximal (the synonym would be C.A.T. – compensatory acceleration training), or it could be submaximal (lifting with certain tempo). Exertion – relates to the proximity of failure in a given set. It seems reasonable that the degree, or level of exertion is substantially different when performing, e.g., 8 out of 12 possible repetitions (12RM) with a given load (8[12] or 8 of 12), compared with performing maximum number of repetitions (12[12] or 12 of 12). Exertion, in strength coaches’ jargon, is usually expressed as “reps left in the tank”. Using the previous example, performing 8 reps with 12RM load represents submaximal exertion with 4 reps left in the tank. Performing 12 reps with 12RM represents maximal exertion with no reps left in the tank. |
All three represent inter-related components of training intensity. I love to call it Intensity Trinity.
Now you have the tool to answer the 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.
Understanding Load/Max Reps relationship
All lifters are familiar with the fact that they can only perform certain maximal number of reps with certain load on the bar. If we express load on the bar as a percent of maximal load that could be lifted (% 1RM) and we assume maximal exertion on the last rep (no reps left in the tank), we get Load/Max Reps relationship. There are numerous tables that quantify this relationship, but for the purpose of this article I will use Dan Baker’s table for experienced trainers.
By using this table, one can know how many maximal reps can be performed using certain load (% 1RM) and also, one can predict maximal load that can be lifted (1RM) using maximum performed reps and reconverting factor. For example, if one performs 10 reps with 225lb, his predicted maximum is 225×1.33 (reconverting factor), which is around 300lb. Please note that this table is different for different lifters and lifts, so take this as a rule of thumb and try to create your own table [1].
Understanding Load/Exertion relationship
Load/Exertion relationship is another crucial concept for understanding strength training. From Load/Max Reps table, we know the maximum number of reps that can be performed using different loads. This, of course, represents maximal exertion. What we want to do next, is to quantify relationship between load, number of reps and exertion level (expressed as reps left in the tank).
The following table is one such solution of using mentioned Load/Max Reps from Dan Baker. I simply call it Load/Exertion table.
Even if you see two tables, this is only one table organized in two ways for easier utilization. For example, if one plans to use 75% of 1RM but is not certain what number of reps should be performed for a given exertion level, table on the left can give him answer. On the flip side, if one plans to do 5 reps per set, but is not certain what % of 1RM to use for a given exertion level, table on the right can give him the answer.
The Load/Exertion table represent crucial concept for understanding different variations and progressions (or sets and reps schemes) we are going to cover.
Understanding Load/Velocity relationship
Suppose that one performs single repetitions across range of loads (e.g. from 30 to 100% 1RM) with maximal effort. The 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, 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 for bench press and 0.3 m/s for squat) is very similar across subjects with different 1RMs and very stable across time (if one improves or decrease his 1RM). This opens up great number of options for coaches.
Understanding Velocity/Exertion relationship
Suppose that one performs reps to failure across different loads (e.g. 50, 70, 90% 1RM) with maximal effort. There are couple of VERY interesting concepts emerging.
First one is that velocity of the last rep in a set to failure (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 left in the tank” (exertion level) will be very similar across loads. In plain English, my 8^{th} rep with 10RM load (2 reps left in tank) will have very similar velocity to my 4^{th} rep with 6RM load (2 reps left in tank).
Load/Velocity and Velocity/Exertion relationships and therefore profiles for each athlete represent novel and very powerful concept that is utilized in velocity based strength training – a way to prescribe, monitor and auto-regulate strength training.
These two relationships are of not of great importance for the current article (since we are going to cover strength training reps and sets schemes with traditional approach to strength training prescription), but those who are interested in learning more can click HERE.
Understanding “traditional approach”
Traditional approach, as I love to call percent-based approach, involves prescribing strength training by using percentages and known (or estimated) 1RM of the lifter.
The whole process goes like this: athlete knows his 1RM in particular exercise or he tests it either using 1RM test or reps-to-failure test and estimate 1RM using reconversion factors (see Load/Max Reps table). Then he uses percent-based programs (e.g. 5×5 with 75%) and converts percentages to absolute loads (e.g. 5×5 with 120kg). And then he goes lifting for couple of weeks. Then either increase 1RM for some small amount (e.g. 5lb) or test it, either with 1RM test, or with an open set (basically reps-to-failure, usually done on the last set 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. There are solutions as well.
The biggest problem is lack of adjustment for different rates of changes for different lifters. Another problem is lack of auto-regulation on daily basis, for both good and bad days.
One of the simplest solutions is prescribing ranges for 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%. This takes into account good or bad days and reduces daily expectations and anxieties of the lifter for hitting certain numbers.
A bit more complex solution is using subjective feedback for exertion level for each set. This involves prescribing exertion levels, and omitting either load or number of reps. Mike Tuchscherer, world class power lifter, developed the whole system revolving around RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion) which is an easy way to quantify exertion level (RPE10 = no reps left in the tank, RPE9 = 1 reps left in the tank, RPE8 = 2 to 4 reps left in the tank and so forth). 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 lifters can use this subjective feedback (rating of perceived exertion) to auto-regulate on good and bad days and adjust for individual rates of change in the strength. It takes time and hard work (and a lot of trial and error) to develop such knowledge.
The 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. Again, for more information click HERE.
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 effort, along with the problems of percent-based approach to get the big picture, but for the rest of this article, we will focus on common variations and progressions (sets and reps schemes) under percent-based umbrella.
Overview of the process
As I have alluded to in the beginning of this article, training objectives will demand certain training parameters within which we can employ various progressions and variations, termed strength training reps and sets schemes.
The whole process looks like this:
This is the simple process (it is definitely not linear as depicted, but involves a lot of feedback information to redefine certain components based on real life results ~ hence the importance of monitoring and measuring) that outlines the planning and programming of training.
On the following table, there is example breakdown of these processes for an intermediate powerlifter.
Process | |
Needs analysis | High level of strength in bench, squat and deadlift. Maintain bodyweight. 3 months to competition. Low budget. Public gym access. |
Athlete characteristics | Good bench presser. Bad back. Highly motivated. Loves training in group. No experience with gear (trained raw) |
Training objectives | Fix the bad back. Maintain bench press performance. Learn to use gear. Improve squat and deadlift. |
Training parameters | Train 5x/week. Do bench press 2x/wk at the end of practices. First two months work on weaknesses, last month work on strength and practice competition lifts. High frequency approach. Work on squat/DL every training day. |
Progressions and variations | Flat loading first to accumulate volume. Switch to step loading. |
This is just an example without too much details (especially in training parameters and progressions), but I hope you get the picture.
As alluded at the beginning of this article, certain variations and progressions in training parameters are more suited towards different training objectives, but there are commonalities between them that we will focus on. Thus, regardless what you are training for (training objectives) there are certain strength training reps and sets schemes (progressions and variations) you can employ on different time scales.
I will be relying on various writings by Dan Baker, Ashley Jones, Joe Kenn and others in this classification and terminology. Please see references for further details.
Workout sets and reps schemes
Within this time frame, workout sets and reps schemes refer to one exercise and one workout. Here are couple of variations that are frequently done in strength training.
Plateau Load | 5 x 5 @ 75% |
Step Load | 1 x 5 @ 65%, 1 x 5 @ 70%, 1 x 5 @ 75%, 1 x 5 @ 80%, 1 x 5 @ 85% |
Step Load plus Back Off | 1 x 5 @ 65%, 1 x 5 @ 70%, 1 x 5 @ 75%, 1 x 5 @ 80%, 1 x 5 @ 85%, 3 x 5 @ 65% |
Reverse Step Load | 1 x 5 @ 85%, 1 x 5 @ 80%, 1 x 5 @ 75%, 1 x 5 @ 70%, 1 x 5 @ 65% |
Traditional Pyramid | 1 x 10 @ 70%, 1 x 8 @ 75%, 1 x 6 @ 80%, 1 x 8 @ 75%, 1 x 10 @ 70% |
Reverse Pyramid | 1 x 6 @ 80%, 1 x 8 @ 75%, 1 x 10 @ 70%, 1 x 8 @ 75%, 1 x 6 @ 80% |
Ascending Half Pyramid – Light to Heavy | 1 x 10 @ 70%, 1 x 8 @ 75%, 1 x 6 @ 80% |
Descending Half Pyramid – Heavy to Light | 1 x 6 @ 80%, 1 x 8 @ 75%, 1 x 10 @ 70% |
Ascending Rep Pyramid | 1 x 4 @ 70%, 1 x 5 @ 70%, 1 x 6 @ 70%, 1 x 7 @ 70%, 1 x 8 @ 70% |
Descending Rep Pyramid | 1 x 10 @ 70%, 1 x 9 @ 70%, 1 x 8 @ 70%, 1 x 7 @ 70%, 1 x 6 @ 70% |
Standard Set Wave | 1 x 10 @ 60%, 1 x 10 @ 67.5%, 1 x 10 @ 65%, 1 x 10 @ 72.5% |
Ascending Half Pyramid Wave – Light to Heavy | 1st Wave: 1 x 10 @ 70%, 1 x 8 @ 75%, 1 x 6 @ 80% 2nd Wave: 1 x 10 @ 72.5%, 1 x 8 @ 77.5%, 1 x 6 @ 82.5% |
Descending Half Pyramid Wave – Heavy to Light | 1st Wave: 1 x 6 @ 80%, 1 x 8 @ 75%, 1 x 10 @ 70% 2nd Wave: 1 x 6 @ 82.5%, 1 x 8 @ 77.5%, 1 x 10 @ 72.5% |
Stable Heavy to Light | 1 x 1 @ 90%, 1 x 6 @ 75%, 1 x 1 @ 90%, 1 x 6 @ 75% |
Ascending Heavy to Light | 1 x 1 @ 90%, 1 x 6 @ 75%, 1 x 1 @ 95%, 1 x 6 @ 80% |
Descending Heavy to Light | 1 x 1 @ 95%, 1 x 6 @ 80%, 1 x 1 @ 90%, 1 x 6 @ 75% |
Cluster Sets | 4 –5 x 5 x 1 @ 3RM load with 15 seconds rest in between each rep |
Rest Pause/Myo Reps | 15-20+5x @ 50% load with 15 seconds rest in between each set |
Daily Max plus Back Off | 1 x 5 @ 60, 1 x 3 @ 70%, 1 x 2 @ 80, 1 x 1 @ 90%, 1 x 1 @ 90+, 3-5 x 2-3 @ 80-90% |
One Set Special | 1 x 5 @ 50%, 1 x 4 @ 60%, 1 x 3 @ 70%, 1 x 2 @ 80%, 1 x 3+ @ 90% |
Progressive Load | 1 x 2 @ 70%, 1 x 2 @ 75%, 1 x 2 @ 80%, 3 x 4 @ 85% |
Joe Kenn Wave | 1 x 2 @ 75%, 1 x 4 @ 85%, 1 x 2 @ 75%, 1 x 4 @ 85% |
Joe Kenn Wave-3 | 1 x 2 @ 75%, 1 x 2 @ 80%, 1 x 4 @ 85%, 1 x 2 @ 75%, 1 x 2 @ 80%, 1 x 4 @ 85% |
There is always problem with terminology, but I used names by Ashley Jones and Joe Kenn. Certain variations are more suitable for certain periods and objective than others. Certain variations progress on Load/Exertion table by keeping reps the same and progressing in load and exertion, some vary reps and keep same exertion, etc.
One can also use different strength training reps and sets schemes for the same objective at different training phases (e.g. plateau load in accumulation phase, step load in intensification phase). The options are endless. The key is having objective on mind, but still providing certain variability to avoid boredom at least, or providing stronger stimuli. Certain athletes will just prefer certain variations. For example, I just hate plateau load option ~ I can do lot more work with wave approaches with same “mental load”.
Weekly sets and reps schemes
Next progression and variation time frame is one training week (or microcycle). Depending on number of training sessions in a week and training frequency (how many times we hit training objective, body part, muscle, biomotor ability), we devise different variations. In the table below, based on work by Dan Baker, we can find different variations for two sessions, hitting the squat pattern (this could be any other movement, body part or training objective).
Method of variation | Day 1 example | Day 2 example |
1. Same exercises and other variables, increase repetitions, and decrease resistance | Squat 3 × 10 @ 70% | Squat 3 × 15 @ 60% |
2. Same exercises and other variables, increase or decrease the number of sets. | Squat 4 × 10 @ 70% | Squat 2 × 10 @ 70% |
3. Same exercises, sets, and repetitions, reduce the lifting speed and resistance. | Squat 3 × 10 @ 70% | Squat 3 × 10 @ 50% (4s/rep) |
4. Same exercises and other variables, decrease rest periods and resistance | Squat 3 × 10 @ 70% (3min/rest) | Squat 3 × 10 @ 50% (1min/rest) |
5. Same exercises and other variables, decrease resistance. | Squat 3 × 5 80% | Squat 3 × 5 @ 70% |
6. Same exercises and other variables, decrease repetitions. | Squat 3 × 5 @ 80% | Squat 3 × 2 @ 80% |
7. Different strength exercises, but same for all other variables (same %1RM). | Squat 3 × 10 @ 70% | Front squat 3 × 10 @ 70% |
8. Perform a strength and power version of aligned exercises on different days. | Squat 3×5 @ 80% | Jump squat 3 × 5 @ 40% |
9. Perform heavier and lighter versions of aligned power exercises on different days. | Power clean 3 x 5 @ 70% | Power snatch 3 x 5 @ 70% |
10. Same exercise, sets, and repetitions, different muscle regime | Squat 3 x 5 @ 80% | Squat 3 x 5 @ 60% (3s isometric hold at three positions) |
11. Same exercise, sets, and repetitions, different modalities | Squat 3 x 5 @ 80% | Squat 3 x 5 @ 60% + chains/bands |
12. Same exercise, sets and repetition, different ROM | Squat 3 x 5 @ 80% | 1/4 Squat 3 x 5 @ 80% |
One frequent application of weekly variations is Hard/Medium/Easy approach of Bill Starr, or ME/DE (Maximal Effort, Dynamic Effort) of Westside.
With higher frequency of workouts, one can choose different combinations of the variations. Certain variations are preferred based on fatigue cycles during the week (biology), priorities (objectives & biology), constraints (context), or just plain preference.
Depending on the workout sets and reps schemes selected, weekly variations can have much more variety (e.g. weekly variations for plateau vs. step loading).
It is also important to say that not all exercises should follow the same variation. For example, lower body movements can use variation 5 or 6, while upper body can use 1 or 3. This depends on the objectives, individual characteristics and preferences.
Training block sets and reps schemes
This is what Dan Baker calls “Different Cycle-Length Variants or Patterns of Periodized Strength Training”. Other coaches recognize it as Periodization Schemes. Unfortunately, most confuse training objectives (e.g. strength, power, hypertrophy, lockout strength, grip strength, hole strength, etc) and training blocks sets and reps schemes. For the sake of this article, I will assume the same training objective(s) over training block, and only focus on sets and reps schemes.
This way, we will avoid confusing sets and reps variations and training objectives emphasis (e.g. undulating periodization sometimes utilizes the following weekly schemes of 4 x 10, 4 x 6, 4 x 8, 4 x 4, and that approach not only provides variety, but also hits different training objectives like hypertrophy and strength). It is important to differentiate to different ways to ‘attack’ training different objectives (e.g. parallel, sequential, undulating, whatever fancy name there is today) and block sets and reps schemes variations aimed at ‘attacking’ the SAME training objective.
On the following table there are frequent variations utilizing different ‘progressions’ on Load/Exertion table. Don’t mind the names, but try to get the underlying principles in load progression and variation.
Name |
Week |
1 |
2 |
3 |
4 |
5 |
6 |
7 |
8 |
Constant | Same reps, same sets, increase load and exertion |
3×8 |
3×8 |
3×8 |
3×8 |
3×8* |
3×8 |
3×8 |
3×8 |
“Traditional” | Same reps, high to low sets, increase load and exertion |
6×8 |
5×8 |
4×8 |
3×8 |
6×8* |
5×8 |
4×8 |
3×8 |
Rep Accumulation | Same load, same sets, increase number of reps and exertion |
3×8 |
3×9 |
3×10 |
3×11 |
3×8* |
3×9 |
3×10 |
3×11 |
Linear | Same sets and exertion, decreasing number of reps, load increase |
3×5 |
3×4 |
3×3 |
3×2 |
3×5* |
3×4 |
3×3 |
3×2 |
Linear Decreasing | Same sets and exertion, increasing number of reps, load decrease |
3×2 |
3×3 |
3×4 |
3×5 |
3×2* |
3×3 |
3×4 |
3×5 |
Traditional & Linear | Same exertion, decreasing number of reps and sets, load increase |
6×5 |
5×4 |
4×3 |
3×2 |
6×5* |
5×4 |
4×3 |
3×2 |
Linear with exertion increase | Same sets, decreasing number of reps, load and exertion increase |
3×5 |
3×4 |
3×3 |
3×2 |
3×5* |
3×4 |
3×3 |
3×2 |
Traditional Linear with exertion increase | Decreasing number of reps and sets, load and exertion increase |
7×5 |
5×4 |
3×3 |
1×2 |
7×5* |
5×4 |
3×3 |
1×2 |
Accumulation/Intensification | Phase 1: Rep accumulation Phase 2: Traditional & Linear |
6×3 |
6×4 |
6×5 |
6×6 |
5×5* |
4×4 |
3×3 |
2×2 |
Constant with unload | Constant with 4th week unload |
3×8 |
3×8 |
3×8 |
3×8 |
3×8* |
3×8 |
3×8 |
3×8 |
Linear with unload | Linear with 4th week unload |
3×5 |
3×4 |
3×3 |
3×4 |
3×5* |
3×4 |
3×3 |
3×4 |
Undulating | Undulaitng reps progression and intensity, same sets and exertion |
3×10 |
3×6 |
3×8 |
3×4 |
3×10* |
3×6 |
3×8 |
3×4 |
* Represents increase in 1RM (e.g. for 2-5kg)
There are many more progressions and variations, but these are the common ones that are utilized under the same training objective. Don’t hung up too much on this table, but use it as an example. The table refers to plateau loading in the workout, but the principles could be applied to all other workout sets and reps schemes.
Please note that there could be different progressions for different training days (e.g. in weekly variation day 1 could progress using traditional and linear progression, and day two could progress using rep accumulation) and even different exercises (e.g. main lifts could use different progression than assistance). This makes infinite number of combinations one could choose from. Again, for certain objectives or even exercises we could prefer one block progression over another.
Hopefully this article provided an overview of “traditional” (percent-based) approach to strength training, with its different processes and different reps and sets progressions and variations on workout, week and block time frames.
Addendum: How to implement this in “real life”?
Since the time this article was published on EliteFTS, I was working on translating the above mentioned strength training reps and sets schemes into ready-to-use Excel template, for both team/group workout and individual programs.
Strength Card Builder works under Microsoft Excel 2010 and later, both on Mac and Windows.
It allows coaches to:
- Keep track of unlimited number of athletes and main/core exercises/tests 1RMs
- Create unlimited number of exercises that are related to core lifts (e.g. DB bench press 1RM is around 80% of barbell bench press 1RM) (It comes with 200+ exercises already filled in)
- Create up to 200 sets and reps schemes (it comes with 100 sets and reps schemes including olympic lifting cycles, constant, linear, wave, accumulation, undulating and volume/intensity variations and progressions)
- Compare sets and reps schemes using simple analyzer
- Modify sets and reps schemes by modifying load-exertion table
- Create group workout cards (up to 50 played)
- Create individual workout cards for 2, 3, 4 and 6 workout a week
To find out more please watch the video below. If by any chance you are not familiar with the Strength Card Builder I strongly recommend you to watch the video training first. Although it was made for the previous version it covers much more details.
SCB New Features Video:
SCB Video Training:
Complementary Training members have 30% discount on the Strenght Card Builder. Premium members can download the product for FREE!