Here's what you need to know...
• This method uses high intensities, greater volume, and involves working close to muscular failure.
• Determine your 5-6RM for one of the big lifts. Then do as many sets as necessary for you to hit a total of 25 reps. In addition to allowing you to work close to failure on each set, the system allows for auto-regulation.
• Once the total amount of reps is completed, you'll do a drop set where you immediately drop the resistance by 5-10% and complete one more set close to failure.
When it comes to making strength and size gains, a training program that utilizes higher intensities (percent of RM), a greater overall volume, and a closer proximity to muscular failure produces superior results. The issue with this approach is the increased risk of injury and burnout, as well as the consistent mental toughness and discipline it takes to continuously complete these sessions. Over time, crushing 8-10 sets of singles or triples or consistently smashing through a 5x5 routine will take its toll.
While de-load weeks have their place, I'm suggesting we find a way to complete the bulk of our training using a system that not only uses a higher intensity and volume, but also matches our physical and mental preparedness for that day. That's where this new method comes in.
Advanced Total-Rep Training
Instead of going 5x5 reps utilizing your 5-6 RM, this method programs a total of 25 reps utilizing a 5-6RM. It sounds almost the same, but hear me out. You'd complete as many reps as possible with each set - working to just shy of technical breakdown - taking as many sets as necessary to complete 25 reps. You may hit 25 reps with 4 sets (sets of 8, 8, 5, and 4), or it may take you as many as 7 sets (sets of 5, 5, 4, 3, 3, 3, 2). With this method, the intensity and volume are kept consistent - both are high, which is what we need to promote adaptations - and each set approaches failure.
This total-rep approach is nothing new (see Chad Waterbury's work in the T Nation archives), but this next part is. Once the total amount of reps is completed, you'll immediately drop the resistance utilized by 5-10% and complete one more set close to failure. This provides a little extra volume at a slightly lighter resistance.
Why It Works
1. This system provides the necessary intensity and volume as well as an approach to muscular failure for strength and size gains.
2. Because everyone is different, a basic prescription such as 5x5 may not spur the same adaptations. This is because some of us can complete their first set with a 5-6 RM but quickly drop in strength and not be able to complete even a second set with the same resistance (never mind 3 or 4 more sets). Others can complete all 5 sets of 5 reps with the same resistance, which would make me question whether they went to true failure on the first couple of sets.
If you're like the first example and your strength capacity falls off quickly, a simple 5 x 5 protocol isn't going to allow you to utilize the high intensities you want for maximal strength gain. Instead, you'll have to drop the intensity to complete the remaining sets. If you're more like the second case, however, you may not approach true muscular failure on your first couple sets, which will also lead to sub-optimal results. Instead, focus on completing a total number of reps so you can finish each set close to failure while keeping the intensity and volume high. For example, if the first example completes 25 reps with a 5-6RM intensity, it may look something like this:
Set 1: 5 reps
Set 2: 5 reps
Set 3: 4 reps
Set 4: 3 reps
Set 5: 3 reps
Set 6: 3 reps
Set 7: 2 reps
...and something like this for the second lifter:
Set 1: 8 reps
Set 2: 8 reps
Set 3: 5 reps
Set 4: 4 reps
Both completed all 25 reps utilizing high intensity and both worked each set to near failure, taking advantage of all three of the necessary components to the strength and size equation.
3. Total-rep training provides a form of auto-regulation. Auto-regulation is the fluctuation of stimuli depending on your abilities (or perceived abilities) of any particular day. One day you may walk into the gym and be able to bang out a set of a 5RM lift and have plenty left in the tank. The next session you may grind your way through your first set and feel like that's pretty much all you've got.
Because this is based on total reps and not sets, you might complete all the reps in fewer sets when you feel great, or it may take a couple more sets on days when you're not up to par. The great thing about it is that you'll still utilize the higher intensity and achieve the needed volume, but you might do so with a few more sets (breaks/regeneration periods) if necessary.
4. As fatigue accumulates, it becomes harder to complete reps with good form. If you're doing a traditional 5x5 set/rep scheme, you're more likely to push through bad technique simply to reach the 5-rep mark on the last set or two. Going for a total number of reps allows you to stay within the confines of your technical abilities. When fatigue sets in and technique breaks down, you simply stop and continue with the next set. This allows us to stay away from performing ugly reps and flirting with injury.
5. Training is just as much a mental game as a physical one. When the musculoskeletal system becomes fatigued, the mind isn't far behind, making the last couple of sets pure mental misery. With this protocol you have the reassurance that there are only X number of reps remaining versus another couple of sets of 5 reps, for example. Although it's a subtle difference, it can be a game changer. It also provides a new challenge that keeps training fresh and keeps you motivated. Instead of consistently adding weight to the bar (which you should still do), you can now shoot for more reps during the initial sets. This helps to keep training interesting and motivation high.
6. The drop set provides a little extra volume at a slightly reduced intensity, thus ensuring near maximal fatigue. This will not only help to stimulate strength and growth, but will provide an extra challenge without increasing the potential for injury.
Use this method with your main lifts only - typically your first, or first and second exercises - and complete your assistance lifts using more traditional set and rep schemes. Make sure you're only employing the drop set after you hit your total number of reps and only do one so you don't blow out your system.