Tip: The Variable Sets and Reps Method

Variable Sets and Reps

As I wrote in The End of 3x10, using "straight" sets and reps (like 4x8 using the same weight for every set) isn't wrong, but it's not the most efficient way to organize your workloads.

That's because, if you're working as hard, fatigue accumulates over the course of your work sets. Keeping in mind that it's only the final, fatiguing reps at the end of each set that really deliver the results, your early work reps will be too far away from failure to produce significant results.

There are at least two better approaches:

Use the same weight for each working set, but allow for the gradual loss of reps on latter sets as fatigue accumulates. For example:

• Set 1: 225 pounds x 10 reps
• Set 2: 225 pounds x 10 reps
• Set 3: 225 pounds x 9 reps
• Set 4: 225 pounds x 8 reps
• Set 5: 225 pounds x 8 reps

Use the same number of reps for each working set, but allow for a gradual reduction in weight on latter sets as fatigue accumulates. For example:

• Set 1: 225 pounds x 10 reps
• Set 2: 225 pounds x 10 reps
• Set 3: 215 pounds x 10 reps
• Set 4: 205 pounds x 10 reps
• Set 5: 205 pounds x 10 reps

What you're focusing on in both cases is taking each set close to failure, not stubbornly maintaining the same weight or number of reps each set. Now there's an important caveat with this recommendation: Regardless of what your weight and reps look like on any given session, it's paramount that you improve upon it the next time, so if workout 1 looks like this...

• Set 1: 225 pounds x 10 reps
• Set 2: 225 pounds x 10 reps
• Set 3: 215 pounds x 10 reps
• Set 4: 205 pounds x 10 reps
• Set 5: 205 pounds x 10 reps

...then workout 2 should look something like this:

• Set 1: 225 pounds x 10 reps
• Set 2: 225 pounds x 10 reps
• Set 3: 220 pounds x 10 reps
• Set 4: 215 pounds x 10 reps
• Set 5: 210 pounds x 10 reps

This simple tweak is simply a matter of changing your focus from absolute numbers to the RIR (reps in reserve) value of each set.

Charles Staley is an accomplished strength coach who specializes in helping older athletes reclaim their physicality and vitality. At age 56, Charles is leaner than ever, injury free, and in his lifetime best shape. His PRs include a 400-pound squat, 510-pound deadlift, and a 17 chin-up max. Follow Charles Staley on Facebook