The Best Reps
Loading Schemes for Optimal Progress
by Christian Thibaudeau
"You know what I like about training with you, Thibaudeau? At the end of the workout I have the feeling that I accomplished something."
To me, that statement best exemplifies what productive training is all about. Yet it didn't come from one of the top athletes or coaches I've worked with over the years. It came from sportscaster Joe Buck.
Joe's statement pretty much sums up what we should all strive for when hitting the gym — accomplishing something!
The key to muscle gain, fat loss, and strength increases lies not in the special program you're on, the training tools you use, or the supplements you take. All these things are important, but the real secret to ongoing progress is the amount of effort you put into your training. Once proper effort levels and work ethics have been established, the actual composition of your program will be key to reaching your goals.
The two most important training parameters are exercise selection and loading scheme. The exercises you choose will determine which muscle groups receive the most stimulation. For optimal progress, you must select the movements that'll stimulate the most growth in the right places. What constitutes the list of optimal exercises might not be the same for you as it is for me; your own levers and muscle dominance will determine which exercises are better suited for you.
When it comes to loading schemes, there's a little less individualization. Sure, more advanced lifters normally need to use lower reps to stimulate maximum growth, but normally a rep scheme that works well to stimulate growth (or strength) in one individual will be pretty effective for others too.
This is because the loading scheme (sets, reps, and weight used) determines the type of muscular effort to be performed. Since muscles adapt to the specific demands imposed on them, it means that the nature of the load will determine the nature of the results!
So this begs the question: what are the best loading schemes? Well, there are quite a few of them! Here are some of my personal favorites.
Scheme #1: 5-4-3-2-1 Rest/Pause
I just recently began using this specific method and the gains are quite impressive! I've always been a fan of rest/pause training, especially when it comes to building muscle mass in the advanced trainee (who needs more intense stimulation). It's one of the only ways to combine very heavy loading with moderately high volume without having to jack up the sets significantly.
With this specific rest/pause technique, you end up performing 15 reps with a load that you could normally perform for five or six reps. To do so you'll need to take several pauses during the set to allow for partial metabolic and neural recovery to occur so that you can get a few more reps. A set will look like this:
Perform five reps. The weight should be challenging but not lead to failure. If you reach failure on the first leg of the set, you won't have time for sufficient metabolic and neural recovery to occur before starting the second leg of the set. After you've completed the five reps, rest for 10 to 12 seconds.
After the short 10-12 seconds of rest, unrack the same weight again and complete four more repetitions, then take another 10-12 seconds of rest.
When the 10-12 second break is over, grab the weight and lift the load for three additional reps. As with the completion of the preceding legs, rest for 10-12 seconds once you've completed the required reps.
You're now into the next-to-last leg of the set. During this one you have to lift the weight for only two repetitions (but they'll feel like 30 reps!). Once you're done, take one last 10-12 second break before attempting the last leg of the set.
Okay, you're almost there! Once the 10-12 seconds have elapsed you only have to lift the weight one more time to complete the set. So that gives you a total of 15 reps with a load you could've lifted probably six, maybe seven times during a normal set.
I have no doubt in my mind that this is one of the most powerful ways to train if you want to build a lot of muscle mass, density, and strength. However, understand that this is a very taxing method, both on the CNS, muscular structures, and metabolic processes. You really can't do a lot of such sets on an exercise.
Ideally you shouldn't do more than three 5-4-3-2-1 sets for an exercise, and most people will be better served doing only two (and even just one set!). If you can do more than three it's because you're not putting a proper effort into your sets.
Q & A: 5-4-3-2-1 Method
Q: If one early leg of the set was taken to failure or was particularly grueling, what do I do?
A: The objective of the 5-4-3-2-1 method is to complete all 15 reps of the set. If you reach muscle failure, it should be on that final rep.
However, on some sets it might occur earlier, normally in the second (four reps) leg of the set. If that happens you should extend the length of the interval prior to the next leg to 15 or even 20 seconds to allow a little extra time for sufficient recovery to take place so that you can complete the upcoming legs.
Q: I'm a beginner and I really want to pile on muscle fast!Would this method be a good choice for me?
A: Hell no! This method should be limited to advanced trainees and some strong intermediate ones. I know how the beginner's mind functions: adding muscle is an emotional issue, especially in the newbie. You want to grow a ton of muscle now. So when you read about a method that's as effective as this one, it's normal to be seduced into trying it. The thing is that for a beginner this method is:
1. Not necessary: More advanced trainees require a more pronounced/intense training stimulus to force muscle growth to happen. Beginners are much more responsive because they're starting from a much lower point. The further away you are from your maximum potential, the easier progress should be. It's smarter to keep this method in the toolbox for when it's really needed.
2. Not optimal: The average beginner doesn't have the capacity to recruit the high-threshold motor units as effectively as advanced trainees. This is because their nervous system isn't "good" at activating these powerful fibers yet. This method targets these HTMUs extensively; if you're not good at recruiting them, then the method won't be super effective for you.
3. More hazardous: Beginners who might not have perfect control of their lifting technique yet, or young individuals who don't yet have a fully developed structure, shouldn't use maximal intensity methods since the risk for injury is higher.
Q: What type of exercises do I use with this method?
A: Since it's a maximum intensity (heavy weights) method, you should rely on basic compound movements. Pick one per workout:
Chest: Barbell bench press variations, weighted dips
Back thickness: Chest-supported T-bar rowing, one-arm dumbbell row, rack pull (half deadlift from knees)
Back width: Weighted chins, weighted pull-ups
Shoulders: Standing military press, push press, seated barbell press
Triceps: Close-grip bench press, decline barbell triceps extension
Biceps: Standing barbell curl, hammer curl
Quads: Back squat, front squat, leg press
Hamstrings: Romanian deadlift
Q: Can I use this type of loading to build up my one rep max?
A: It's indeed a very powerful strength-building technique, however, it's not specific to demonstrating strength in a 1RM. Even though the rest-pause technique allows you to use more weight, you're still performing a total of 15 reps.
Because of the rest-pause, you'll build a lot of strength and especially size, but if you want to peak for a single you need to do some modifications. Here's a good training cycle to use to max out on the bench press (or any other major lift) in eight weeks:
Weeks one and two: 2 x 5-4-3-2-1 rest-pause sets
Weeks three and four: 3 x 4-3-2-1 rest-pause sets with 10-15 pounds more
Weeks five and six: 4 x 3-2-1 rest-pause sets with 10-15 pounds more
Weeks seven: 5 x 2-1 rest-pause sets with 10-15 pounds more
Weeks eight: 5 x 1 gradually working up to your 1RM
This type of cycle can add up to 30-40 pounds on a major lift in eight weeks.
Scheme #2: The 6-12-25 Breakdown
This type of training consists of performing a double drop set. Start with a load you can lift for six reps in good form. When you complete the six reps, reduce the weight by half (e.g. if you used 200 pounds you go down to 100) and perform 12 reps (take as little rest as possible).
When these are completed you once again reduce the weight by half (if you had 100 pounds, drop down to 50) and shoot for 25 reps. You might or might not get them, but that's your ultimate target.
Once you're able to perform all 43 reps of the set you can go up in weight at your next workout. However, you should always be able to complete the first two legs of the exercise. If you fail to get the required 12 reps on the second leg, the weight was too heavy.
This is another good total hypertrophy method because it includes all three important factors in stimulating muscle growth: heavy work, cumulative fatigue, and hormonal increases (due to the production of lactate). It's less "strength-oriented" than the 5-4-3-2-1 rest/pause, which makes it a good choice for intermediate trainees or for a secondary/isolation movement for a muscle.
It's also slightly less draining than the 5-4-3-2-1 method on the CNS and muscular structures, but a bit more on the metabolic processes. So you should be able to perform three sets of this method with an exercise without risking overstressing your body. Those with lousy strength-endurance (fast-twitch dominant) would do better with only two such sets.
Q & A: The 6-12-25 Breakdown
Q: If the first leg (six reps) was challenging but the second one, with half the weight, was too easy, what do I do?
A: This is one of the reasons why record keeping in a training journal is so important. Remember, you should cut down the weight by around half with each drop. However, depending on your strength, muscle-endurance, and levers, this decrease might be either insufficient (you won't be able to get 12 reps) or excessive (12 reps will be too easy).
The "half the weight" guideline should only be seen as a good starting point. It'll be adequate for most people, but others will have to play with it somewhat to make sure that the load is doable but hard enough to make it challenging.
Q: Let's say I'm supposed to start with 225 pounds on the bench press for 6, then cut down to 110 pounds for 12, and finally 55 pounds for 25. Now, what happens if the first two legs were easy but I can only get 15 reps on the last?
A: The basic premise is that all legs should be challenging. If the first two were easy, then you'll have to bump up the weight, maybe to 245 pounds and 120 pounds, but since the last one was far from being completed you'll need to either reduce the load lower than 55 pounds or work at it until you can get the whole 25 reps.
Again, this is where record keeping is so important. How can you expect to improve if you have no idea where you're at?
Q: I want to use this method with the bench press but I can only bench 150 pounds for 6 reps. That would mean I'd have to use less than the 45 pound bar on my last leg. What do I do?
A: If you aren't strong enough on the bench press to be able to use at least the bar on your last leg, then you aren't advanced enough to use this method!
But if you still want to try it, you can use dumbbells instead. If you can bench press 150 pounds for 6 reps, you can probably use 45-50 pound dumbbells. So you could go: 50 pounds x 6, 25 pounds x 12, 15 pounds x 25.
Q: What about tempo?
A: Counting tempo (the speed of each repetition) is fine for beginners using straight sets since it allows them to make sure they're doing the movement properly, safely, and effectively. However, I'm not a big fan of precise tempo control (as in counting the seconds during the eccentric and concentric phases) under certain circumstances.
These circumstances include heavy lifting. No way can you focus on counting rep speed when you're struggling with a weight. Since this method starts with a heavy lifting portion, I don't recommend counting your tempo precisely. I do advocate lowering the weight under control and lifting as fast as possible with perfect technique, but that's about it.
Q: What type of exercises do I use with this method?
A: This method can be used with a broad range of exercises since it's what I call a "mixed" technique (not a strength technique, nor a pure hypertrophy technique). I'd choose the exercise you've found to be the best growth stimulator in your own particular case.
While I'd like to be hardcore and tell you to only use this method with deadlifts, squats, and bench press, the fact of the matter is that this is a very powerful hypertrophy technique that'll be made even more effective if performed with the exercise best suited to your own biomechanics. If you've found the cable crossover to be your number one chest-builder (although I hope it isn't) then you should use that exercise with this method.
Machines, cable stations, and dumbbells are probably better choices than barbell lifts here because it takes less time to drop down the weight (unless you have two partners to remove weight from the bar between legs). The less rest there is between legs (ideally less than ten seconds) the more effective the method will be.
Scheme #3: Wave Loading
Coach Poliquin popularized wave loading a few years back. It's one of the most effective strength-building approaches known to man. This type of loading scheme was also used extensively by Bulgarian Olympic lifters as well as by Canadian elite weightlifting coach, Pierre Roy.
Wave loading consists of grouping several sets (normally three) into a "wave." Each one of those three sets within a wave is progressively heavier but performed with less reps. At the completion of a wave (three successful sets) you start a new one. When you start a new wave you decrease the weight compared to the last set of the preceding one, but to a higher level than where you initially started from. Example:
225 pounds x 3 reps
235 pounds x 2 reps
245 pounds x 1 rep
235 pounds x 3 reps
245 pounds x 2 reps
255 pounds x 1 rep
Here are the rules of wave loading:
1. As long as you can successfully complete a wave, you keep on going. It's thus an autoregulating method since training volume (and load) is dependent on your physical capacities for that day.
2. When you fail to get the prescribed number of reps during one set then the exercise is over. For example, if you're supposed to do 245 pounds for three reps and you're successful then you move on. You're now supposed to lift 255 pounds for two reps, but you only get one. This means the exercise is over.
3. Within a wave the weights must always go up. Let's say you were able to lift 245 pounds for three reps but it was an excruciating effort; you know you won't get two reps with 250 or 255 pounds. Well, you can't stay at 245 pounds to "do one more set." If you can't move up, the exercise is over.
4. Each wave has to be heavier than the preceding one. I personally like to start the first set (three reps) of a new wave with the load that was used for the second set (two reps) of the preceding one. For example, if my first wave was 315 pounds for three, 325 pounds for two, and 335 pounds for one, I'll start the second wave with 325 pounds for three.
5. If you can't complete two waves you either started with too much weight or misjudged your fatigue level. If you can get two to three waves the load was properly selected. If you complete more than three waves you either started too light or were in particularly great shape on that day. You should never be able to do more than four waves.
There are two types of waves I like to use:
Strength Wave (3/2/1): This type of loading is probably the most effective way to train for pure strength as it includes both "strength-building sets" (three reps) and "strength-demonstrating sets" (one or two reps). Some coaches recommend selecting the starting weight with a percentage of your maximum, but I prefer to use the Bulgarian method of subtracting a certain amount from the maximal load:
• If your maximum on a lift is less than 200 pounds, start with 20 pounds less than your max and work up in five pound increments (e.g. 180, 185, 190 — 185, 190, 195 — 190, 195, 200).
• If your maximum on a lift is between 200 and 400 pounds, start with 30-40 pounds less than your max and work up in 10 pound increments.
• If your maximum on a lift is between 400 and 600 pounds, start with 50-60 pounds less than your max and work up in 15 pound increments.
Or you can choose to start at a specific percentage of your maximum (normally around 88-90%) and work up in increments of 5%. The rest between sets should be around 120-150 seconds.
Functional Hypertrophy Wave (7/5/3): This type of wave loading is appropriate for individuals seeking both muscle growth and strength increases. It includes one set in the hypertrophy range (seven reps), one that's more in the limit strength zone (five reps), and a last one that's in the relative strength zone (three reps).
This is a good loading scheme for athletes who want to add muscle mass since it'll also boost their physical capacities. The load progression rules are the same as with other types of wave loading, however, the jumps from set to set can be slightly bigger since you have a two rep difference between each set compared to only one for the 3/2/1 wave. The rest between sets should be around 75-90 seconds.
Q & A: Wave Loading Method
Q: Do I have to shoot for maximal weights during the first wave?
A: The first wave is basically to wake up the nervous system and get you "in the groove." It doesn't mean that it should be easy; in fact, it should be challenging. But you should choose weights that you're sure to be able to lift for the prescribed number of reps.
Q: What if the first wave was too easy?
A: This can happen. If your nervous system is particularly tuned in on that day you might underestimate the loads for the first wave. This is often the case the first time you perform this type of training since you might not be used to using maximal weights and you play it on the conservative side.
That's perfectly fine. I always prefer if the first wave is a bit too easy than too demanding. If the first wave takes too much out of you, you won't be able to complete the second one (since each wave has to be slightly heavier than the preceding one). The goal is to complete at least two waves; three is even better. So it's more beneficial to start conservatively (but still make it challenging) so that you can perform more total sets.
Q: What if I'm able to complete four waves and almost a fifth one?
A: You're either blessed by the lifting gods on that day or you were too conservative with your initial weight or weight progression. Completing three waves is actually quite a feat and indicates a great workout. If you're able to do more than that, re-evaluate your loads on the next workout.
Q: How many "wave exercises" can I do for a muscle group?
A: One! Not more than that! A properly executed wave protocol is super demanding on the nervous system, and using it for more than one exercise for a muscle group is sure to be overkill. While it's tempting to do more because of how effective this method is, doing so will undoubtedly reduce your rate of progress.
Scheme #4: Contrast Loading
Contrast loading refers to alternating between sets of two different training zones. The better application is to go back and forth between a set in the relative strength zone (1-3 reps) to one in the functional hypertrophy zone (6-8 reps).
The heavier set is actually used to make the "lighter" set better via a phenomenon called post-tetanic potentiation. Without going into too much scientific detail, know that there's such a thing called "muscle activity after-effects." In simple terms, any muscular action (e.g. lifting a weight) will have an impact on a subsequent activity via a mix of two different and opposing effects:
1. Fatigue: Lifting a weight for X number of reps causes muscular, metabolic, and neural fatigue. Fatigue can obviously impair performance.
2. Potentiation: Lifting a weight, especially a heavy weight or lifting explosively, "wakes up" the nervous system which results in an enhanced capacity to recruit high threshold motor units. Potentiation improves performance.
So what we want is to potentiate the CNS as much as possible while fatiguing the muscles as little as possible. This will give you the biggest increase in lifting performance. To do so, the potentiating set should use between one and three reps and a load that's close to your maximum (90-97%). Heavy weights have the most profound activation/potentiation impact on the nervous system while not being metabolically costly.
As for the actual "development" sets, the more they rely on the nervous system, the more effective the potentiation effect will be. For example, a potentiating set of two reps with 95% of your maximum will have a much greater impact on a subsequent set of six reps than on one of 15 reps.
The 15 rep set relies mostly on metabolic factors so a potentiation of the nervous system will actually not be very helpful. That's why we want to keep the development sets between 6 and 8 reps: high enough to stimulate a lot of muscle growth, low enough to rely heavily on the nervous system.
To make the most out of this technique we want to use two or three contrast sets (so a total of four to six sets). For example:
Set 1: (Warm-up) 6 reps, submaximal
Set 2: (Potentiating) 1-2 reps, 90-95%
Set 3: (Development) 6 reps, 6RM
Set 4: (Potentiating) 1-2 reps, 90-95%
Set 5: (Development) 6 reps, 6RM
Set 6: (Potentiating) 1-2 reps, 90-95%
Set 7: (Development) 6 reps, 6RM
Note that these last two methods were first made popular by Coach Poliquin. (Gotta give credit where credit is due!)
Q & A: Contrast Loading Method
Q: How much time do I take between each set?
A: The potentiating effect of a heavy set lasts for up to three minutes after which it's gradually lost. There are still benefits for up to five minutes, but not maximal benefits.
Between the potentiating and development sets you should take two to three minutes of rest. On the other hand, after the development set you can take up to three to four minutes to allow for full metabolic recovery and avoid cumulative fatigue that would counterbalance the potentiating effect.
Q: Is this method like wave loading in that you can only use it for one exercise per muscle group?
A: Most definitely! If anything, this method is even more stressful than wave loading since it's both CNS and metabolic intensive. You can probably handle adding one more contrast set from time to time (doing eight total work sets instead of four to six) but that's about as far as I'd go when it comes to adding volume with this method.
Q: Is this method better for strength or size?
A: It should primarily be seen as a strength-building scheme since it does include maximal work (one to three reps) and functional hypertrophy work (six to eight reps) which both have a profound impact on strength development and strength demonstration/realization.
However, the 6-8 rep range also has a marked impact on muscle growth, and since the whole objective of this loading scheme is to make the 6-8 rep sets more effective, then it's only logical that it'll also lead to muscle growth.
Supplementing the Rep Schemes
Nutritional supplements can enhance the effect of a training program. This is also true of the schemes presented in this article. And depending on the method of choice, some supplements will be more effective than others.
Here are some basic recommendations:
5-4-3-2-1 Rest/Pause: This method relies heavily on the phosphagen energy systems since each "leg" of a set will last anywhere from two to twelve seconds. Furthermore, the efficacy of this method is based on your body's capacity to restore as much ATP as possible in the 10-12 seconds of rest between legs. For these reasons, creatine is probably the most important supplement to use while on this type of program.
6-12-25 Breakdown: This method also relies on the phosphagen system, but to a lesser extent than the 5-4-3-2-1 method. So creatine can be useful, but it won't have as big of an impact as with the first technique presented.
However, Beta-7 is a perfect fit for this training scheme since it increases muscle endurance, a quality that will often limit performance in the 12 and especially 25 rep portions of the set.
3/2/1 Wave Loading: This type of training is all about neural activation. So it should come as no surprise that Power Drive and especially Spike would be the better choices for maximal performance on this type of training. You can either use both pre-workout or Spike pre-workout and Power Drive post-workout to help with neural recovery.
7/5/3 Wave Loading: This second type of wave also depends on CNS activation, but the phosphagen energy system also comes into play. So your best bet on this program is Spike before your workout, creatine (5 grams in the morning, 5 grams before the workout, 5-10 grams after the workout), and Power Drive after your workout.
Contrast Loading: Again, CNS activation is the key here. Creatine will also be very effective as well as Beta-7. They'll help minimize cumulative fatigue which would hinder the potentiating effect of the heavy sets.
Obviously, BCAAs and fish oil can be added too. In fact, I believe these two supplements will improve the gains you'll get from any type of program. They should be staples in your daily regimen. Flameout is especially interesting with heavy lifting protocols (3/2/1 wave, 7/5/3 wave, 5-4-3-2-1 RP, and contrast loading) to reduce possible joint inflammation.
Accomplish something with your workouts. Try one of these methods today!
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