When it comes to building muscle, there's no one-size fits all set and rep scheme. High reps with lighter weights can work. So can low reps with heavier weights.

The underlying theme? You need to create both mechanical tension (through heavy loading) and metabolic stress (the pump) to maximize muscle growth. Here are the five best loading schemes to get you strong and jacked.

1 – Wave Loading (7/5/3)

Wave loading is a simple scheme composed of, get this, waves. Each wave (7/5/3) leverages basic physiology and psychology to get you to add weight to each set of a compound strength exercise – like deadlifts, squats, presses, or rows – to build size and strength.

Each set within the base builds upon the previous – increasing resistance while the number of reps decreases. This stimulates high-threshold muscle fibers and increases training volume while providing both mechanical tension and high-quality training volume.

After each wave is complete, you'll take a longer rest, increase the weights, and repeat the wave, albeit heavier. In the case of 7/5/3 rep schemes, you'll need to limit yourself to two waves or about 30 total reps.

Here's a sample using 7/5/3 waves with a back squat:

Wave One

  • 250x7: rest 60 seconds
  • 260x5: rest 60 seconds
  • 275x3: rest 60-120 seconds

Wave Two

  • 265x7: rest 60 seconds
  • 275x5: rest 60 seconds
  • 300x3

Your goal in wave loading for building size is to complete two full waves, with the final set on the last wave being close to maximum effort for the given rep range. Once you complete two full waves, it's time to progressively increase your weights, bringing up the submaximal set first and the top-end strength sets next.

Here's what a three-week cycle could look like:

Week One, Wave One

  • 250x7: rest 60 seconds
  • 260x5: rest 60 seconds
  • 275x3: rest 60-120 seconds

Week One, Wave Two

  • 265x7: rest 60 seconds
  • 275x5: rest 60 seconds
  • 300x3

Week Two, Wave One

  • 260x7: rest 60 seconds
  • 275x5: rest 60 seconds
  • 285x3: rest 60-120 seconds

Week Two, Wave Two

  • 265x7: rest 60 seconds
  • 285x5: rest 60 seconds
  • 300x3

Week Three, Wave One

  • 265x7: rest 60 seconds
  • 285x5: rest 60 seconds
  • 295x3: rest 60-120 seconds

Week Three, Wave Two

  • 270x7: rest 60 seconds
  • 290x5: rest 60 seconds
  • 305x3

Waves are a fun method to help you manage fatigue while lifting progressively heavier, especially if you're feeling "stuck" with a linear periodization training model.

2 – Ascending Loading with a Drop Set (12/10/8/6/20)

Ascending loading is one of the best rep schemes for building size because it increases mechanical tension (time under tension), stimulates metabolic stress (the pump), and increases muscular damage (muscle fiber recruitment) – the three vital ingredients for muscle growth.

The higher rep sets (12/10) will add training volume and metabolic stress while the heavier sets (8/6) will add more mechanical tension to give you the ultimate one-two punch for muscle growth. Finally, the 20-rep drop set should be performed right after the 6-rep set and serves as a "shock" method to wake up stagnant muscles.

Here's how it works: The heavy-rep sets get your central nervous system firing on all cylinders and your body reacts with improved intramuscular coordination (the coordinated firing of motor units). Next, the mid-range reps will have you moving more efficiently due to enhanced intermuscular coordination.

Because you're moving more effectively at the neuromuscular level, you'll be able to lift heavier than normal for the 20-rep set, thereby creating a greater overall muscle building response.

Here's how it looks with a dumbbell bench press over a three-week span:

Week One

  • 70x12: rest 60-90 seconds
  • 80x10: rest 60-90 seconds
  • 90x8: rest 60-90 seconds
  • 100x6: rest 0-30 seconds
  • 50x20: crawl to the water fountain

Week Two

  • 70x12: rest 60-90 seconds
  • 85x10: rest 60-90 seconds
  • 95x8: rest 60-90 seconds
  • 100x6: rest 0-30 seconds
  • 55x20: sob quietly in the corner

Week Three

  • 75x12: rest 60-90 seconds
  • 85x10: rest 60-90 seconds
  • 95x8: rest 60-90 seconds
  • 100x6: rest 0-30 seconds
  • 60x20: examine the ceiling as you suck air

If you miscalculate your 20-rep set, no worries. If you can't complete all 20, pause before hitting failure and rest for 15 seconds. Break up your 20-rep set into shorter sets until you complete 20 total reps. Once you can hit all 20 reps on the last set, increase the weight next time.

Bench Press

3 – Rest-Pause Training (5 Reps then Rest Pause)

Rest-pause training is one of the most effective ways to constantly challenge your muscles with more tension to stimulate strength and size gains. Ultimately, this rep scheme requires that you work your way up to one final working set (your fourth set). Every other set is meant to prepare you for the set that "matters."

So let's say that your final set on a bench press is going to be 270 pounds. You'll lead up to that set by performing ramp-up sets, similar to the ascending loading described earlier:

  • 205x5 reps: rest 60-90 seconds
  • 220x5 reps: rest 60-90 seconds
  • 250x5 reps: rest 60-90 seconds
  • 270x5 reps:  (the work set)

When you complete the 5 reps of 270, you'll rack the barbell, rest for 15-30 seconds, and then do another SINGLE rep of 270. Then you'll rack the weight again. Wait an additional 15-30 seconds and perform another SINGLE rep of 270. Repeat 3-5 times.

With every single rep, you're increasing your daily workout load, forcing your muscles to adapt and respond to that increase. Using this example, you've essentially increased your training volume by 1,350 pounds.

4 – Cluster Sets

Cluster sets are sets that contain built-in rest periods of 5-20 seconds. Like the rest-pause rep scheme, cluster sets increase overall training volume in any given workout, which naturally leads to an increase in muscle building potential.

Cluster sets work almost like a standard 5x5 in that you'll perform the same amount of reps for every set while slightly increasing the weight during each set.

So let's say you're deadlifting today with loads of 270, 280, 290, 300, and 310 pounds. Every "macro-set" contains 3 "micro-sets" of 2-2-1. After every micro-set you'll rest for 15 seconds before continuing on to the next micro-set.

After you've completed all three micro-sets, you'll rest a full 90-120 seconds before beginning another macro-set of micro-sets.

I know, I know, this can be a confusing one to follow. Here's what it looks like on paper:

  • 270 x 2: rest 15 seconds
  • 270 x 2: then rest 15 seconds
  • 270 x 1: Rest 90-120 seconds

  • 280 x 2: then rest 15 seconds
  • 280 x 2: then rest 15 seconds
  • 280 x 1: Rest 90-120 seconds

  • 290 x 2: then rest 15 seconds
  • 290 x 2: then rest 15 seconds
  • 290 x 1: Rest 90-120 seconds

  • 300 x 2: then rest 15 seconds
  • 300 x 2: then rest 15 seconds
  • 300 x 1: Rest 90-120 seconds

  • 310 x 2: then rest 15 seconds
  • 310 x 2: then rest 15 seconds
  • 310 x 1: Rest 90-120 seconds

Cluster sets allow you to use heavy weights while implementing short recovery periods to regenerate phosphate, thereby allowing you to squirt out a few more reps.

Row

5 – 10-1 Countdown Sets

These are short-term, high-intensity sessions performed at the end of your workout to maximize workout density and push yourself past your limits.

Here's an example of an upper-body workout. Like most guys, you need more horizontal pulling volume. Hell-bent on building a barn-door back and bigger arms, you've decided you need to row to grow. Enter the 10-1 dumbbell row countdown:

  • Pick a weight you can row for 12-15 reps.
  • Do 10 reps with your right arm, ten reps with your left arm.
  • Now do 9 reps with your right arm, 9 with your left.

Continue this way, back and forth without rest, all the way to one rep.

In a matter of minutes, you'll have added over 50 reps of skin-splitting training volume with a moderately heavy weight. You can apply the 10-1 method to any compound exercise, but start light and only do one set. If you're doing countdown sets with a bilateral movement, rest 15 to 30 seconds between sets.

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