There’s a reason – a damn good reason – why today’s cars aren’t made with a carburetor. It’s the same reason I’m not using a turkey feather quill pen to write this article. Nor am I shoveling coal into my furnace to tame the “frigid” 50-degree nights in Southern California. And I’ve all but given up on stringing together two empty pork and bean cans to chat with TC about chicks.
There are better ways to get the job done. Training for size and strength, of course, is no exception.
With this article I’ll take you through a journey of sets and reps. It’s a subject that I spent way too much time experimenting with in my early training days, and it tripped me up on numerous occasions. In essence, I was trying to build a better carburetor when I should’ve been thinking about fuel injection.
So I’m here to help you leap over some of the same pitfalls that I slipped into.
A Starr Pupil
When I was 18 I got my hands on a copy of Bill Starr’s classic text, The Strongest Shall Survive. The foundation of the book was three exercises: the power clean, bench press, and back squat. He recommended that all three exercises be performed in each workout – a total body workout, in other words – for three workouts each week.
I followed his program for three of the best training months of my youth. I added muscle and strength like never before. Unfortunately, I was a naíve teenager. Because of my hard-headedness, paired with a delusion that workouts from pro bodybuilding muscle mags surely had better training methods, I left his program, and many of the book’s principles, behind. (As I look back, I still have no idea why I did this.)
A key component of Starr’s book was a combination of 5 sets of 5 reps for the big three lifts. Even though I ignorantly decided to refrain from his total body training to experiment with an innumerable number of splits, I had enough sense to keep his 5×5 combination in my workouts. That set and rep combination just felt right. Whenever I used it for a lift I got results – not indefinitely, but certainly longer than any other combination.
At the ripe old age of 19 I was offered the opportunity to teach a strength training class at the local YMCA. One of my professors, a weightlifting coach, had taught the class and was apparently ready to hand over the task to younger blood. I was happy to oblige.
Can you guess which set/rep combination I used most?
If you ever wonder which training or nutritional methods have worked for an elite trainer, just look at what he advocates. In other words, there’s always a bias towards the method that gave him results. This is not a bad thing, per se, it’s just a fact. We coaches figure that if we find something that’s effective for us, it’ll probably be effective for you, too. I’m certainly no different.
Indeed, I had a strong bias towards the 5 sets of 5 reps method that I learned from Starr’s book. It worked for me, and it worked for most of the people I trained.
After college, I moved to Chicago and began working as a personal trainer. The success I had using the 5×5 method with my YMCA class put me on the right track. I was absolutely convinced that an effective training program stemmed from a specific set/rep combination. If I wrote a workout that had 5 sets of 5 reps for the front squat, and my client could only get three or four reps on the last set, I figured the workout wasn’t productive.
From the 5×5 method, I experimented with other – albeit similar – combinations such as 4×6, 6×4, and 8×3. When it came to training for size and strength, my clients got results with all of them. I’d found the specific parameters that work. I just had to make sure they never fell short.
And this is when I started avoiding failure with my clients. In my mind, it was better to finish all five sets of five reps then it was to fall short on the last set. I wish I could say that my strategy was based on controlling central nervous system fatigue, or some other scientific explanation, but it wasn’t. I hadn’t yet begun graduate school and I’d trained only a couple dozen people. I decided to train my clients with lower loads because I was hellbent on always getting the set/rep combination just right.
I might’ve been on the right track, but I was looking at training through a straw. Indeed, I had inadvertently handcuffed myself.
Breaking the Chains
At this point in the story, there’s a lot more I could say about what I’ve learned since I taught that YMCA class 10 years ago, but I want to get straight to the point. I’m here to tell you that if you narrow your focus on specific set/rep combinations, you’ll never build size and strength as fast as you could have.
There’s too much room for error. The first few sets might be too easy, and you might overreach in later sets, thus accumulating excess central nervous system fatigue while recruiting the smaller, weaker muscle fibers. What matters is the total number of reps you do, and the load you use to get those reps.
Instead of doing 5×5 with 85% of your one-repetition maximum (a weight you could lift 6 times), you’ll derive significantly better results if you just focus on doing 25 total reps with that same load. 5×5 works for such a large cross-section of lifters because 25 total reps is, for whatever reason, a volume that our bodies respond well to with a load that’s around a 6RM. (There are, of course, many other combinations of loads and total reps that work. I’m just singling out the 5×5 method with a 6RM for the purposes of this article.) So let’s put that information to good use.
For example, let’s say your 6RM for the back squat is 300 pounds. What if I told you to do 25 total reps and I didn’t give you any instruction with regard to how many sets or reps you should do? What would you do?
A masochist might load the 300-pound barbell on his back, do six reps, take a few breaths, do another few reps, take a few more breaths, and keep knocking out reps until he hits 25. This is actually a method that I’ve used with a few athletes who wanted to be pushed to the absolute brink. It makes Peary Rader’s 20-rep squat method feel like a Swedish massage. In other words, don’t try it unless someone has the paramedics on call.
Another guy might do 25 singles.
And another guy might assume he should do 5 sets of 5 reps.
So is there an ideal way to get to 25 reps? One that maximizes muscle fiber recruitment to build bigger, stronger muscles? One that helps you get leaner and manages fatigue? You bet there is, and it’s the foundation of my new book, Huge in a Hurry.
I’ve already discussed the core principles of the book in my interview with Testosterone Muscle, so I won’t rehash those points here. The purpose of this article is to give you the information you need to experiment with my training system. I hope to shift your focus from an endless search for specific set/rep pairings (like I did for many years) to simply counting the number of reps and letting the sets take care of themselves.
Trust me when I say it’s a more effective, and enjoyable, way to train.
I’m going to give you an experimental workout. It consists of three exercises. You’ll choose oneexercise from each group (A, B, and C). You’ll do 25 total reps for each exercise and you won’t think about a target number of sets, or a specific number of reps for any given set – you’ll simply focus on getting to 25 total reps as fast as possible. Once you do, move on to the next exercise. The load for each exercise should be a weight you could lift 4-6 times for your first set.
- Pull-up or lat pulldown with a wide grip
- Pull-up or lat pulldown with a narrow grip
- Pull-up or lat pulldown with a neutral (palms facing each other) grip
- Bent-over row with barbell or dumbbells
- Standing cable row
- Seated cable row
- Standing military press with barbell or dumbbells
- Push press
- Incline bench press with barbell or dumbbells
- Flat bench press with barbell or dumbbells
- Decline bench press with barbell or dumbbells
- Deadlift with snatch grip
- Sumo deadlift
- Front squat
- Back squat
- Hack squat with barbell
- Power clean
- Power snatch
Here’s a sample workout. Remember, you can use any combination from the above three groups.
- Total reps: 25
- Load: 4-6RM
- Power clean
Throw this sample workout into your current training program for an extra GPP-boosting workout. Or use it in place of one of your current workouts. Challenge your buddy to see who can get to 25 reps fastest. And you can even add a few more exercises to the workout, as long as you follow the same basic structure.
Just give it a try and I think you’ll like how simple and effective training can be!