Reps, Sets and the Weight Aren’t That Important

When I first started lifting weights in 1994, I read the muscle magazines which endlessly repeated the golden rule of bodybuilding, which was to do 3 sets of 8-12 reps with a wide variety of exercises. A typical workout would take an hour. These were the important metrics during my early years of lifting.

After a few years of doing this style of training, my gains stalled. I assumed the reason my gains stalled was that I didn’t workout enough. The new number I focused on was number of gym visits. Somehow I got it into my head that I needed to lift 3 times a week to maintain and 4 times a week to gain. If I worked out just once or twice a week, I’d be losing muscle. Boy did I have that one wrong.

Where did all that high volume, “go big or go home” nonsense lead me? Frequent injuries. I could go a month or two all out, only to be sidelined for an equal or greater period of time.

What About Reps?

Then in 2001, I read Pavel’s Power to the People. His approach was different than anything I had been exposed to up until that point. The primary lessons being to keep the reps low, increase the weight, work on a few key compound exercises and end the exercise a few reps before failure for safety.

As I’ve discussed in other posts, the period of 2001-2003 was when I turned things around and made the most gains. My injury rate dropped and I got stronger. I became a disciple of low reps. There are many posts on this site where I preach the gospel of low reps.

At this point, I was convinced the high weight plus low reps were the key metrics. The problem with higher weights is that when you do have that one rep that is less than perfect and you tweak your back or shoulder, the injury is worse. My concern with Pavel’s prescription for strength is that the exercises he uses to demonstrate strength have a high skill component. I discussed why that is problematic in the posts I No Longer Give a Squat About the Squat and My Bench Press Sucks and I Don’t Care.

The purpose of low reps with Pavel or any other powerlifting style protocol is to train the skill while the muscles are fresh. One is far more likely to have perfect form on reps 1 to 3 than 6 – 9. So by using low reps with extended rest, you reduce injury risk. The magic of low reps was no magic at all. It was a strategy to increase safety in complex skill based lifts. And increasing the skill component allows the lifter to increase the weight quicker. By moving to safer exercises with a lower skill component, I believe the low rep advantage disappears.

So many numbers. My workout white board from my Pavel era.

What About the Weight?

At this point in my fitness journey I had lost the faith that reps, sets or even number of visits to the gym per week were valuable metrics, but I still believed that the higher the weight, the better. Then I was exposed to High Intensity Training. I learned that by slowing down the repetition speed, a lighter weight became more difficult to move. By trading momentum for less weight, the exercise not only became more challenging, because I was using machines, it became safer.

The speed of a rep is the most powerful metric, with a static hold being the most very challenging. Very slow movements and static holds allow me to safely recruit more muscle in a safer manner. Today my legs have never been stronger, yet I use a much lighter weight.

Intensity and Time Under Load

These days I could care less about reps, sets or even the weight. I’m going for intensity and TUL (time under load). The amount of weight I use on the leg press is often as little as 150-190 pounds. I do a few reps very slowly and then lower the weight into a static hold and then hold until failure is reached. When the movement is complete, I can barely stand up. At no point in the movement did I risk injury with complex movements or excessive weight.

How much intensity and TUL? I vary these from workout to workout. I no longer go to complete failure every workout. TUL might vary from 30 seconds at a higher weight to 60 seconds at a lower weight. I usually do a single set, although I might add in a second from time to time. I mix it up. I don’t write down any numbers and I’ve never been in better shape.

Comments

  1. Canadian Nomad says

    I’m really interested to read your experiences because I have been flirting with HIT for a while now, but can’t bring my self to make the complete switch, part of which because I love my kettlebells :) and I enjoy my HIIT (sprinting on the beach, tabatas) I feel very “charged” after a workout, and I too keep them short and intense … but I do notice that my joints aren’t as “young” as they used to be, and so, I’m starting to look at things that are less stressful to my joints … I’m curious though, if the HIT protocol will still allow for explosive movement … though I suppose that beyond sprinting, we don’t have a need for it (except maybe explosively punching a mugger in the face … done that, and then sprinting away) … I really ought to read the book body by science :) and I need to research and learn more about the fast-twitch and slow-twitch fibers …

  2. StuartG says

    Michael,
    Thank you for writing a really good article. This is a timely piece, as it has been written at the same time as another great article by Chris Highcock of Conditioning Research titled “Gnosticism in Health and Fitness”. It appears many of the writers that I admire, yourself, Chris, Clarence Bass, Richard Winett etc despite keeping an open mind, have recently returned to the idea that the simple approach works, if applied consistently enough. I was wondering if you had decided to experiment with the higher volume approach based on your thoughts that more volume was more applicable to your ectomorphic body type. It appears that you do this on a limited basis with an occasional second set, but it seems that you have in the main realised that consistency coupled with time is the main factor in realising your potential. As always it is extremely interesting to read your views and experiments with your training.

  3. says

    MAS,

    You are stating that: “The speed of a rep is the most powerful metric, with a static hold being the most challenging.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong but the concentric phase of a superslow movement seems to me more challenging than the static hold.

    You are strongest in the negative portion of a lift, then comes the static hold, and you are weakest in the concentric phase.

    What is your opinion on doing a 60-0-60 movement (such as Vee Ferguson’s 60sec chin up)? I can’t imagine anything more challenging than that.

  4. says

    @StuartG – I have been experimenting with higher volume, especially since going on low caffeine. Low caffeine = less intensity. Less intensity means I need to increase volume a bit. Also, my research led to test that higher volume is better for ectomorphs. So far to me – both variations work. The key is still machines done slowly.

    The thing about fitness is because they are so few data points and we all have genetic limits, there is really no way to measurable say one method is superior to another on an individual basis. You can with a group, especially if they are young untrained. I believe by far the most important elements of training are show up, don’t get injured and allow time to recover before returning to the gym. Nothing glamorous. After those requirements are met, I don’t believe the trained ectomorph will see much difference in outcome on various volume levels as long as the main muscle groups are challenged with some level of intensity.

    @Stephan – You are probably right. I had trouble with that sentence. I started thinking about slowly lowering a weight and then attempting a static hold, but failing.

    I haven’t attempted Lee’s chin-up, but will on my next gym visit.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_23cl5n8NaQ

    I’m a fan of Full Range with Static Holds.
    http://criticalmas.com/2012/09/how-i-improved-my-chin-ups/

  5. garymar says

    For the month of December, I’m taking a break for my usual round-robin 2-exercise Max Pyramid protocol. I thought I’d take a complete break from resistance training and just bicycle a lot, but it’s too darned cold for that!

    So I’m doing a few high-volume low weight cycles for the holidays. (I want to be able to pig out on carbs.) Regular full-range motion, not static yielding holds like Max Pyramid. The much greater amount of movement is already making my joints creakier, and the soreness seems to last longer.

  6. Evan says

    Hey Michael,

    How are you doing? I’ve enjoyed reading about your fitness experiences.

    I’ve also experimented with different strength training programs over the years (including HIT, Super Slow, Heavy Duty, HST, volume training, etc.)–with mixed results. Lately I’ve been experimenting with what I’m temporarily calling Minimal Intensity Training (I need a better name). The idea is to expose the body to the MINIMAL amount of stimulus necessary to achieve results. Instead of being at the top end of the stimulus curve (approaching and sometimes crossing over into overtraining), I want to be at the lower end of the curve (just above undertraining).

    What I do is the following: I stick to a certain stimulus level (weights, reps, TUL, exercises), for an extended period of time. I usually do just one work set per exercise (but perhaps more is better); and I stop several reps shy of failure. During this period I make no attempt to increase the stimulus (constantly trying to increase the stimulus can easily lead to overtraining). Then, periodically (say once every 3 weeks or so), I’ll do a strength test to see where I’m at. And only when I have evidence of a strength plateau do I consider increasing the stimulus. This approach allows me to workout more frequently with minimal stress to the body.

    I’m starting to think that pushing yourself in the gym every workout is similar to constantly increasing the dial (or duration) on a tanning bed–you’re going to get burnt eventually. Then, when you do get burnt, you’ll find that you need a long recovery period before you’re ready for another session. Muscle soreness is perhaps similar to a sun burn in that it’s a message from your body that you overdid it.

    So far I’m achieving good results with this program. I’ll update you on my future progress if you’re interested.

  7. says

    @Evan – Nice to hear from you Evan.

    I like your tanning bed analogy. The way I see this being addressed in the HIT community is by increasing the days rest between workouts. I believe John Little (co-author of Body By Science) stated in a podcast that he needs greater than 1 week recovery. I want to say he is lifting just 40 times a year now. I hope I didn’t misquote.

    For me, I like going to the gym, so I cycle the intensity. I also have a post where I discuss how pure HIT may not be ideal for us ectomorphs.

    http://criticalmas.com/2012/08/is-high-intensity-training-best-for-ectomorphs/

    I now believe the greatest benefit of HIT is the safety of using machines with a controlled pace. Most of the gains are coming from using safe movements and allowing sufficient rest between workouts. There likely isn’t a secret formula on sets and TUL, so varying those makes the most sense.

  8. Evan says

    @MAS – Thanks for the reply.

    I’m concerned that a long recovery period might lead to muscle atrophy (or muscle growth stagnation). Strength training primarily causes adaptions to two systems: the muscle tissue and the nervous system. A long recovery period might be adequate for neural adaptations but may be suboptimal for muscle hypertrophy. This is supported by some studies. For example, consider the study done by McLester, et al. entitled “Comparison of 1 Day and 3 Days Per Week of Equal-Volume Resistance Training in Experienced Subjects”. The 1 day per week group (1DAY) experienced 62% of the strength gains of the 3 day per week group (3DAY). But more interestingly, the 1DAY group only gained 2 pounds of lean mass whereas the 3DAY group gained 10 pounds. The researchers thought that some muscle atrophy might be occurring in the 1DAY group during the long rest periods (page 279). This (and other studies) is why Hypertrophy Specific Training (HST) recommends training the whole body 3 times a week.

    Of course, with more frequent training one must be vigilant not to apply excessive stimulation. Going back to my tanning analogy, if the tanning stimulus is excessive and you’re burning yourself each time, then you really need a long recovery period between sessions. Unfortunately, if you’re burning yourself each time, then you are not going to get much of a tan.

    Regarding intensity cycling (where intensity is defined as either effort or load): I’ve always been puzzled by the rationale behind cycling. If high intensity training is adaptive, then don’t you lose those adaptions when you cycle down your intensity? Also, if low intensity periods are necessary to recover from high intensity periods, then doesn’t that imply that the high intensity periods involved excessive stimulation? If you think of strength training from a dose-response perspective, then why would you want to constantly be changing the dose? It’s like taking a drug for a medical condition and you’re constantly increasing and decreasing the dose of the drug. Isn’t it better to determine what the optimal dose of the drug is (i.e., where you experience maximal efficacy with minimal side-effects), and then stick to it?

  9. says

    @Evan – You are over thinking this. The rationality of cycling anything is that we accept that we don’t know the true answer. So we move in a range between activities that each independently produce positive adaption. I cycle because I don’t know, plus it keeps things interesting. With weight training you will find people that have achieved positive outcomes using every possible training methodology.

    I don’t put much faith into studies, because these studies often use untrained college students and almost never apply to those of us with more than 15 years training. Especially us ectomorphs, who already have limits to their muscular potential.

    I’ve gained 30 pounds of muscle since Army Basic Training. If I don’t gain another pound of muscle, that is OK. The key for me is don’t get injured. And I can assure you that there is no atrophy from doing a single HIT workout each week.

  10. Evan says

    @MAS – I don’t necessarily advocate HST. It’s an interesting program and it’s worth reading about, but I’m skeptical about certain aspects of it (e.g., Strategic Deconditioning, periodization, etc.). But notice how the article you cited uses a training cycle that has you NOT training to failure most of the time. This is critical since, in my opinion, a high-frequency program that has you training to failure all or most of the time is a sure-fire recipe for overtraining (at least in most lifters).

    I understand what you mean about cycling when you don’t know what the answer is. I just think that it should be possible to design a program that will hone in on the correct amount of stimulation without the need for cycling. By getting periodic feedback from strength tests, it should be possible to develop a system that will carefully and gradually hone in on the optimal (or nearly optimal) level of stimulation.

    The concern I have about training once per week is not that muscle mass will necessarily decrease in a large-scale way, but that muscle growth will prematurely stagnate. Consider the scenario where a trainer works out his biceps on Monday and then waits a whole week before working them out again. If the HST folks are right, then growth in the biceps will stop on Tuesday (or maybe Wednesday). Then, from Thursday to Sunday, his biceps will slowly atrophy back to the size they were at the beginning of the week (or close to it). So from the trainer’s perspective his biceps are just not growing any more (because a 1 week gain and loss of muscle is too subtle for him to notice).

  11. says

    @Evan – When I trained 2-4 times per week, my body never had time to fully recover. My strength cycled. My injury rate was higher. The sweet spot for me – regardless of intensity – is one workout every 5 to 7 days. My research has led me to believe that full recovery takes longer as our training age and intensity increases.

    My focus is no longer on the numbers at the gym, which is the purpose of this post. I believe the magic is in figuring out how to optimize nutrition for growth and increase the rate of recovery.

    If one could figure out to increase full recovery by a single day at equal intensity, that would trump any workout protocol for hypertrophy. One of the problems us ectomorphs have is we can leave well enough alone. We don’t trust the process and we try and micro-manage. We over train, we under eat, we abuse coffee and when that doesn’t work, we do even more. We never accept our genetics and we push ourselves to injury.

  12. Evan says

    @MAS – My experience with HIT is similar to yours. When I do HIT full-body workouts (~10 exercises, 1 set per exercise, 100% intensity), it takes me 5 days to fully recover. And 3 of those days I’m noticeably sore. That’s why it’s crucial to ease up on the intensity if you’re going to train more frequently.

    Unlike you, when I started strength training, I almost immediately fell into HIT. After using HIT for some time, I had reached strength plateaus in all of my exercises. Therefore, back in 2004, I decided to try something different. Instead of always training with 100% intensity, I decided to systematically try lower intensity levels while increasing the training frequency to 3 times per week. I tried intensity levels from 60% to 90%–at 5% increments. My rep range was always 6-10. (Just to clarify, if a lifter’s 10 repetition maximum on the barbell curl is 100 lbs, then lifting 90 lbs for 10 reps would be 90% intensity.) I stuck to a given intensity level for one month. Then, at the end of the month, I did a strength test to see how I fared at that intensity level.

    What I found surprised me. I made slow but steady progress with intensity levels between 65% and 85%, inclusive. It didn’t seem to matter where I was within that range. Anywhere between 65% and 85% intensity led to slow but consistently predictable progress. When the intensity got up to 90%, I noticed a slight DECREASE in strength–which I interpreted as the beginning of overtraining. When the intensity got down to 60%, my strength suddenly declined precipitously. All this surprised me since, at 65% to 75% intensity, the weights felt surprisingly light. I would walk away from the gym feeling like my muscles were still fresh. Despite this, the strength tests showed steady improvements. For example, my bench press was 235 lbs prior to this experiment. By the end of the experiment, my bench press had reached 285 lbs (I weighed 185 lbs at the time).

    Since then my strength and body weight has gone down due to lifting sabbaticals as well as having difficulties eating enough calories to keep my body weight at 185+ lbs. I sympathize with ectomorphs who have trouble eating enough calories. Recently, after a long sabbatical, I’ve started strength training again–hence my interest in the subject and all these posts.

  13. says

    @Evan – I’ve been thinking more about this.

    For me I have found the factor that determines if I go to failure via HIT or pursue more volume is gym temperature. It is a variable that I can’t control. When the gym temp is cool, I pursue HIT. When the temperature feels warmer or more muggy, I go for a little more volume.

    During the winter months, my gym has had the temperature too high, so I avoid going to failure, because I am far more likely to get exertion headaches. I also like the neon in the winter, so adding an additional workout is good for mood.

Trackbacks

  1. […] In one sentence, he said exactly why you shouldn’t be chasing the classic definition of strength if your goal is building muscle. We need to recruit more muscle fibers and we need to do it safely. That means slowing down the movement and using machines. It means using less weight and not unloading the tension on the muscle with each repetition. In other words, Reps, Sets and the Weight Aren’t that Important. […]

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