Here's what you need to know...
- The basic set and rep schemes work, but to make long-term gains and keep your mind engaged, you need to change things up.
- Minute-on-the-minute sets, tonnage programs, never-ending sets, and timed sets are all effective breaks from the standard 5 x 5 or 3 x 10 plans.
- Timed sets build muscle and work capacity, as well as mental toughness.
After thousands of training sessions, the experienced lifter may be bored with the basic set and rep schemes – 3 sets of 10, 5 sets of 5, 10 sets of 3, etc.
Don't get me wrong, organizing your training programs by sets and reps works. It's a great way to determine the strength quality you're training and ensure you're making progress from week to week and phase to phase.
However, if you've spent years cycling through these schemes, they not only get boring, they can grow stagnant.
Honestly, when's the last time you added significant numbers to your back squat by doing 5 x 5? How much bigger are you getting with that 3 x 10 bench press protocol?
If they're still working for you, great. If not, it's time to dig deeper and find some less traditional methodologies that will not only challenge your muscles, but also stimulate your mind and expand your training horizons.
Some of these I borrowed from other strength coaches and training systems, while others were the result of experimentation in the gym. Either way, if you've been stuck in a training rut, these will help you release the beast.
What I like about minute-on-the-minute (MOTM) sets is that they allow you to get a high volume of relatively intense work packed into a short timeframe.
MOTM works like this: you start a set at the top of the minute for a specific number of reps. After completing those reps, you rest for whatever remains of that minute. Then, at the top of the next minute, you begin your next set.
So if you were to load a trap-bar with your 5-6RM and hit a trap-bar deadlift for 3 reps every minute on the minute for 10 sets, you would perform 30 pretty heavy deadlifts in a total of 10 minutes. Not too shabby.
Another way to approach the MOTM concept is to use a relatively lighter load and add 1 rep every minute (1 rep in minute one, 2 reps in minute two, etc.). In this scenario you get the additional work from the reps while also shortening the rest period between sets (remember, you're only resting for what remains of the minute once your reps are done).
Try loading a bar with 50% of your 1RM in the push press and start with 1 rep at the top of the minute. Continue to add 1 additional rep each minute until you can no longer finish the set within 60 seconds. After you smoke the first few sets you'll be amazed at how quickly this becomes really difficult.
Both versions of MOTM sets can be done with almost any exercise, but I recommend using compound, multi-joint staples such as chin-ups, bench press, deadlift, squat, and overhead press.
A very close relative to the MOTM sets are never-ending sets. Here you keep the X number of reps at the top of the minute protocol, but rather than keeping the weight on the bar the same, you add load every minute.
For example, start with a 135-pound front squat for 2 reps at the top of the first minute. Then add 10 pounds and go for another 2 reps at the top of the second minute. Keep adding 10 pounds per minute until you can no longer hit those 2 reps.
Again, you can use nearly any exercise with this scheme but compound barbell-based movements work best. The thing I like about never-ending sets is that it's a density-based challenge that really pushes stronger lifters, which isn't easily achieved in more traditional metabolic circuits or time-based challenges.
Tonnage is simply the total load volume of any particular exercise or workout.
Take the total number of reps, multiply it by the number of sets, then multiply that by the weight used – that's your tonnage.
For example, if you perform 10 sets of the bench press with 100 pounds on the bar for 10 reps, your tonnage is 10,000 pounds (10 x 10 x 100).
There are a few ways to set up a workout with total tonnage being your main training parameter. One way is to simply pick a tonnage goal and work on hitting it in the shortest amount of time.
Take the bench press example from above and try hitting that 10,000 total pounds in less than 8 minutes. My personal favorite is trying to hit a tonnage goal in a certain number of reps or in the least amount of reps possible.
So using the bench press example, can you get to that 10,000-pound total in 50 reps rather than 100? Can you get there in 45 the next time?
And you don't have to keep the same load on the bar for all reps. You can start closer to your max for lower-rep sets and then reduce the weight for higher reps as you fatigue.
Approaching your training in this way requires you to get creative with your strategy, which keeps things much more engaging. Plus, you can go home and tell your girlfriend you just bench pressed 22,000 pounds, so there's that.
Timed sets have become popular in recent years, mostly for the development of work capacity. These workouts usually involve two or more movements performed in succession for a certain number of reps for a prescribed number of rounds.
For example, 5 rounds of 8 push presses, 10 chin-ups, and 25 kettlebell swings done with as little rest as possible. Or 3 rounds of barbell thrusters, pull-ups, and burpees for 20 reps, 15 reps, and 10 reps, respectively, per round.
What's great about workouts like this is that they encourage you to train hard and give you a benchmark time to beat. For example, if you can complete a workout 20 seconds faster than you did last time, that's an easy way to measure improvement.
I also like to use timed sets of single exercises to train a specific strength quality. For example, I might do back squats for 50 seconds if I'm in a hypertrophy phase. We know that a specific time under tension encourages a specific strength adaptation, so if you program in this manner you're far more likely to get the results you're looking for.
The key is not to allow yourself too much downtime during the set by pausing at the top of the movement. But be warned, there's a huge mental component to training this way.
You don't have the "finish line" of knowing that once 10 reps is over, you can re-rack the bar. This can be unnerving for many. However, I see it as another benefit of this type of training. Not only does it build muscle and work capacity, it also builds mental toughness.