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Categories of Weight Training: Part 9

Continuing from Categories of Weight Training: Part 8, let me finish talking about maximum strength training by looking at the other loading parameters: volume, rest periods and exercise selection.

Loading Parameter 3: Volume Part 1

As I discussed in Categories of Weight Training: Part 4, training volume has been defined in different ways ranging from volume to total sets to total reps to variations on that theme.  The same basic idea holds for strength training where volume can be defined a whole bunch of different ways (total sets, total reps, tonnage, total lifts above some percentage cutoff, etc.).  The question then becomes what is the optimal volume of training for strength gains.

Once again we run into a problem that empirically, some of the strongest men to walk the planet have reached high levels of strength with volumes ranging from extremely low to extremely high.  At the low end we might look at one of the greatest powerlifters of all time Ed Coan who, at the end of his career  did 1-2 heavy sets (5 reps or lower cycling from higher to lower repetitions and adding gear over time) on the competition movements followed by higher rep assistance work for associated muscles.

Even Westside with it’s 3 singles at 90%+ (and lots of additional work at lower intensities) is low volume in terms of truly heavy loading.  Mind you, this is often for guys working at the upper limits of strength and, of course, as the weights on the bar get higher, the likelihood of doing a lot of volume at high intensities goes way down.  Even if it’s only 80%, 800 lbs in the squat takes it’s toll on the body and you’re not getting a lot of sets.

At the other extreme are the high/higher volumes in Sheiko/Smolov type routines (where you often see goals of reps per workout, per week, per month or per year in complicated cycling) where you might see a given week consist of some hundreds of total repetitions (reps above a certain intensity usually only being counted).

Similarly, Olympic lifting has traditionally pushed the limits of volumes (with a general idea that as athletes reached higher levels they need to do more work to keep progression) thought it’s important to note that most of the big increases in training volume and frequency came along with systematic doping during the 80’s.  It also breaks a majority of its athletes.

It’s probably worth noting that the Bulgarian system, despite it’s absurd emphasis on frequency and intensity is often  towards the lower end of volume.  In a given workout, for a given exercise, 1-6 singles might be done and even if that’s done 3 times in a day, that’s still only 18 total reps (5X5 gives you 25 reps for comparison).  Mind you, the volume calculations are a bit more complicated due to overlap in the movements so don’t read too much into that number. I’m just making a point about volume.

And of course there are systems that fall in the middle of those extremes.  Pavel’s Grease the Groove which is 2 sets of 5 per workout but done almost daily (so 50 reps or more per week but distributed over the week).  I previously mentioned the Korte3X3 system with it’s 3 sets of 3 done three times per week for 27 total reps (mind you the overlap of squat andDL meant that volume for legs is double that and it’s worth mentioning that many reported better gains in those movements than in bench with that program).

Moving back to the realm of the normal human, folks have gotten very strong working up to 1-2 singles at each workout multiple times per week, doing 3X3 reps at 85-90% (this is pretty grindy) and of course there is the classic 5 sets of 5 (or the Texas Method which alternates 5 sets of 5 one day with ramping to one maximal set another which gives you 25 hard reps at one workout and one all out set on the other), you name it and someone has probably made it work for strength gains.

My point being, again, that what’s actually been done over the years is kind of all over the map ranging from a relatively low volume to fairly high volumes with everything in-between.   So let’s back off and look at the research on the topic.

Back to Rhea’s Analysis

As I talked about in Part 8, Rhea’s meta-analysis concluded that untrained individuals were found to get optimal strength gains with 3 sets of an exercise, trained individuals with 4 sets and athletes with 8 sets.  Clearly there is a relationship between training status and volume requirements for strength gains, but this is true of all aspects of fitness: as you get fitter, there needs to be an increase in training load to stimulate further gains.  This is basically consistent with empirical experience.

Again, that was with relative intensities of 60%, 80% and 85% respectively and frequencies of 3, 2 and 2 days/week.  Summed up, we get recommendations of:

  1. Beginners: 3 sets per muscle group, 3X/week, 60% average intensity
  2. Trained Folks: 4 sets per muscle group, 2X/week, 80% average intensity
  3. Trained Athletes: 8 sets per muscle group, 2X/week, 85% average intensity

As I mentioned in the sections on hypertrophy, 8 sets of 1 is way different than 8 sets of 5 so just looking at sets isn’t a really good indicator here.   And fairly surprisingly, the papers didn’t actually discuss (anywhere I could find) how many reps per set were done to generate repetition recommendations.  It just counted total sets.

Now, given how most of these studies are done, I’ll simply assume that it was near RM loads.   This is common because going to limits gives a measurable “endpoint” for the set.  This work was done long before the application of RPE, RIR or RTF so it would have been maximum sets.

Trained individuals doing 4 sets at 80% of max (~8 reps) would be doing in the realm of 32 repetitions per workout.  Trained athletes at 85% (~5 reps) and 8 sets would be doing 40 reps.  The first comment I’d make is that this is at the low end of the hypertrophy volume recommendations from earlier in this series.  Realistically this is probably also higher than what most do in practice since it’s damn near impossible to actually do 8 all out sets of 5 in a workout.  It’s just not a workout that can be done.

Of course, if you’re working at a higher relative intensity, the volume per set drops (i.e. at 90% of 1RM you might get 3 reps all out) and the volume per workout tends to go down.   Three sets of three is only 9 reps and 3-6 singles at 100% of maximum might be a truly limit workout.  At some point the volume may be too low to generate an optimal training effect.

Loading Parameter 3: Volume Part 2

Now one thing implicit in the above discussion is that true RM loads are being used, that is, that the sets are being taken to limits.  And while this may be done in studies (though I always question a study claiming to have people doing multiple sets of 8RM to failure) it’s questionable if this is a good idea to do all the time in training.  I daresay most successful strength athletes do not train this way.

As with the discussion of hypertrophy, going to failure in maximum strength training can cause potential problems.  Injury of course is one, unless a trainee’s form is absolutely stable, going to limits in low repetition training tends to be a recipe for disaster.  It’s worth noting that many great strength athletes, Ed Coan comes to mind, have found that keeping reps in the tank and not going to limits not only decreased their injury rate but also kept them making better progress over time.

Another is the same one that I talked about with hypertrophy training, going to limits on early sets of maximal strength training tends to cause excessive fatigue and limit the overall workout volume.    Put differently, if you work to a true 5RM load at 85% of your maximum on your first set, you may be unable to get more than one or two good sets.  If, instead, you worked at 80% (an 8RM) load but only did 5 reps you could get more volume.  Each set would be better technically, bar speed would stay higher.  It would be better overall.  Or you could work at 85% (again, 5RM) and possibly do 6 sets of 3 for 18 total reps.  Reps that would be technically superior, etc.

And this more or less represents some of the trends in maximal strength training methodology that have come out of some of the systems I talked about previously with Sheiko and Smolov. Very few limit sets are done and this allows higher volumes and frequencies to be performed.   But it still doesn’t really answer the overall question of optimal repetitions per exercise or per workout should be done for optimal results.

Prilepin’s Table

Some readers may be familiar with Prilepen’s table which I’ve reproduced below which is one approach to volume per workout.   This was developed by a Russian researcher back in the day and it’s important to realize that it was for Olympic lifting.  It wasn’t ever formally researched, he basically just looked at what lifters were doing and made the chart.  Here it is:


I’d note that it was observational (the chart was developed by looking at the training patterns of Olympic lifters and seeing what they did, it wasn’t development experimentally) and was developed originally for OL’ing with all of the unique characteristics I babbled on about previously.  However, it can still represent a decent starting point for determining optimal volumes of training.

Do note that the group being studied was also elite young males who, in all likelihood, were on anabolics.   So they are the genetically elite, training full time from a young age under a state sponsored drug program.  Meaning that, for most people, the optimal or maximal volume recommendations are simply going to be too high for the general population.  The average person would be better served working towards the lower to middle end of the volume recommendations.

Note that there is NO indication of frequency on this table but you can safely assume it was pretty high (4 or more sessions per week) since it was based on highly qualified Eastern European Olympic lifters.  Note: I’ve added a column (bolded) not usually found in the original chart to make a point about something that I’ll explain in a second.  So here’s the chart.

Prilepin's Table

Hopefully this makes sense. So at 70-75% of maximum, a lifter might do 10-12 repetitions maximum.  But in training, they would do 3-6 repetitions per set with a per workout range of 12-24 and an optimum range of 18 reps.   So a lighter workout might be only 12 reps whereas a truly heavy workout might be 24.  At 90%+ 3 reps (or less) can be done but only 1-2 reps per set are done.  The range of repetitions per workout is 4-10 with an optimal volume of 7.  So 6 singles at 90% might be appropriate.

The logic here is that by keeping individual sets submaximal in terms of the reps done relative to the maximum possible the quality of training is better.  Bar speed stays higher which is important for Olympic lifting, technique is more stable, etc.  Now there are some major limitations to this chart.

First, as I said, it was purely observational.  It was also based on elite male Olympic lifters (so it might not apply to women who often show slightly different percentage/repetition range relationships).   This means full-time training, years of build up and the reality of steroid use.   Normal humans might not be able to survive the highest or even optimum volumes.

I’d also note that the chart leaves out some important information like training frequency.  How often were the lifters training, how often would each workout be done.  It’s questionable how much application this truly has to non Olympic lifting although people have certainly tried.

Louie Simmons applied the above to powerlifting and basically cut the optimal per workout volumes in half.  So 7 reps at 90%+ became 3 reps at 90%+, a typical Westside ME workout.  His logic was that the powerlifters take at least twice as long as the Olympic lifts to perform, changing their nature.  And there is some logic to this.  I’ve used it in a rough sense with a female powerlifter I train but I don’t use it too strictly.

I do think if you look at some of the OL’ing inspired systems like Sheiko and Smolov, they are using something very similar to the chart above in terms of individual workouts.  But it’s always within a complex scheme of volume and intensity variation during each week and month of training.

Auto-Regulated Approaches

I should probably also not a recent tendency for more auto-regulated approaches where total volume is determined on a day-to-day basis or by using something like Rating of Perceived Exertion.  Mike Tuscherer’s Reactive Training System is based around this approach and there are others.

This adds to the the above charts by adding a RPE score and setting a given workout based around that.   So a lifter might shoot for repeat triples at 85% (a 5RM) until an RPE of 10 is reached.  So they keep doing triples until they hit a limit set.  If that happens at 3 sets, it happens at 3 sets.  If it happens at 8 sets, it happens at 8 sets (it’s important to keep the rest interval constant with this type of training).  This has the advantage of taking into account a given trainee’s work capacity, experience, recovery, etc. but takes more practice to use effectively.  Many people suck at estimating RPE or RIR/RTF which make systems like that useless.

Of course, this only begins to scratch the surface of variations with this, some systems use a combination of volume days (which are heavy but less than all out) combined with a single heavy day.Anyone who has read  Practical Programming for Strength Training by Rippetoe and Kilgore has seen the Texas method. It consists of  one high volume day (5 sets of 5 or 6 sets of 3 with loads that won’t be all out) and one higher intensity day (work to a single maximum set of 5 or 3).   Essentially, the high volume day stimulates gains in strength, the intensity day “realizes” them.

And you can see even more complex/longer range schemes.  Athletes may spend 4-6 weeks focusing on volume (an accumulation phase where more volume is done at slightly reduced loads) and then peak things out by moving to higher intensity for 2-3 weeks (an intensification phase where volume is reduced and intensity is raised closer to limits).  I’m not going to talk about periodization of training here.  This is already too long.

So what’s the optimal training volume for maximal strength?  Well it depends.   Empirically a l0t of different things seem to work and I’d suggest that for most avoiding the extremes probably gives the best results.  An old rule of thumb (thank SS For this) is 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps (at an appropriate intensity).  That’s 9-25 reps/workout which is right in line with all of the above babble.   If you work closer to 90%, stay at the lower end.  If you work closer to 85%, stay at the higher end of the volume.

Loading Parameter 4: Rest Interval

Rest intervals for maximal strength training are typically longer than for other types of training although this tends to heavily depend on the movement being done.  This is based on the idea that, although the muscular stress can actually be less with this type of training, the neural fatigue generated tends to be much greater.

While there are exceptions, usually rest intervals of 2-5 minutes (or even longer, some powerlifters might take 10 full minutes between maximum attempts although this is fairly rare) is common.  Olympic lifters often work at the shorter end of this, arguably for reasons I’ve discussed previously (different neural/muscular demands, no grinding on an almost missed lift, losing their groove).  Individual athletes often respond differently so there is some trial and error involved.

It’s important to realize that this can make for very long workouts if a large number of sets and/or exercises are done and this is a one very real-world limitation of this type of training.     If we even assume a medium range of a 3′ rest interval for sets of 5, a 5 sets of 5 program will take at least 15 minutes in addition to any warm-up sets which are done.  Unless you intend to be in the gym all day, that limits how many movements can or should be done with that style of loading.  At most 1-2 exercises might be done truly heavily with any other movements being trained in more of a hypertrophy zone.  Trying to do 8 exercises as maximal strength training just doesn’t work.

Loading Parameter 5: Exercise Selection Part 1

At some time in the future, I intend to do an overwritten series about exercise selection and the issue of specificity versus variety in training but now is not that time. Here, as with the discussion on hypertrophy exercise selection in Categories of Weight Training: Part 4 I’m going to give aprecis on the issue.

Simply, in the case of maximal strength training, there is much to be said for the idea that specificity rules.  That is, and this is related to the huge neural and technical contribution of strength production, if you want to get stronger in movement X, you need to do at least some of your training in movement X.  If you want to get a bigger squat, you need to squat.

That is, while hypertrophy is basically a local response to tension/fatigue/damage/etc. and your pecs don’t give a damn what exercise you do (so long as tension, fatigue, damage and progression are present), you’re not going to get a big barbell flat bench press if you don’t barbell flat bench press at least sometimes.

If nothing else you need the technical practice on the movement.  Beyond that the various neural contributors to strength (e.g. intra-muscular coordination which is how well the muscles involved in the complex movement work together) will NEVER get developed for the bench press itself if you don’t bench press.

Which isn’t to say that your heavy strength training has to be exclusively relegated to only the movement you want to improve.  There can be carryover/transfer from related movements and both powerlifters and Olympic lifters often do movements that are similar but not identical to their competition movements.   In general, the further away you get from the movement you’re trying to improve the less the transfer.

Beyond that, both high variety systems (such as Westide which uses a lot of related or supplemental movements to improve performance) and high specificity systems (Sheiko, Metal Militia) have generated successful lifters and discussing things beyond that point would take another article.  The same holds in Olympic lifting where you had the high-variety Russian training approach contrasted to the insane specificity of Bulgarian training.  Both created champions.

Loading Parameter 5: Exercise Selection Part 2

When you start talking about exercise selection for non weight room sports it can get a bit entrenched.  You have the general exercise only approach, the specificity approach and most systems work between those two extremes with some combination of general and specific or semi-specific exercises and I don’t have space to cover it.

For most, a combination of specific work (e.g. heavy work in the lift that needs to be improved) with specific assistance work (to bring up weak points, provide variety) is probably the ideal combination. But a full discussion will have to wait until later.    There was a big trend towards extreme minimalism in powerlifting for a while, where only the competition movements were being done and I can’t say most stuck with it.  There are better ways to train.

For the general public, there’s even less importance to pick specific exercises in my opinion (macho dogma excepted).  Picking movements that can be done safely and progressively is more important in my opinion but there is some argument to be made for doing exercises that have some correlation with real-world activities.

Mind you, a lot of the big compounds need good coaching to be done safely and the necessity of good form is even more crucial when working in low repetition ranges.  I’d note again that I’m not sure I see much role for true maximal strength training for the general public in the first place.  I just don’t see heavy triples being that crucial for the average gym goer.

I should mention that, by and large, isolation movements and maximal strength training methods are not a good mix.  The joint loading is too hard on most of them (there are a few exceptions like barbell curls) and I’d recommend compound exercises for true low repetition training.  Certainly some can get away with some isolation movements in lower repetition ranges (5-6 reps) but anything lower than that should be reserved exclusively for multi-joint movements.  Put differently, maximum singles, doubles and triples in the lateral raise isn’t a good idea.

Finally, I want to mention the number of exercises that can or should be done.  Generally speaking, for truly heavy work, 1 or 2 exercises per workout is about the maximum (OL’ers can often get around this, again the nature of their sport make this possible) although there are some programs based around three movements done for 5X5.

I’ve seen some routines where someone wants to do 5X5 heavy on like 8 movements (because 5X5 is of course the perfect loading scheme).   First and foremost, such a workout would take forever.  With even a moderate rest interval of 3 minutes between sets, 5X5 takes at least 15 minutes to complete (more if you do warmups).  Done for 2-3 exercises alone that’s 45-60 minutes.  That’s on top of simply being exhausting.  Trying to do more than that simply isn’t realistic and if additional exercises are done they should be done for higher repetitions.

During phases of maximal strength training, I suggest putting your your effort into one or two main (sometimes called “core”) movements and then move on; anything else can and should be worked much lighter for supplementary work.  Eric Cressey’s Maximum Strength manual gives some good examples of how one might do this.  The routines typically involve one very heavy movement per workout followed by general strength work and prehab type stuff.

The basic Westside ME template is the same: a single heavy movement followed by a bunch of supplemental stuff.  With more moderate loading, it’s often possible to get in two movements (e.g. work bench and row for 5X5 or even 6X3 and then everything else in a higher rep range) but with few exceptions, working heavy on more movements than that tends to be difficult for a number of reasons.

Summarizing Maximum Strength Training

.So, finally, that’s it.  Here’s a summary on basic loading parameters for maximal strength training.

  • Intensity (%1RM): 85-100% (with some variety)
  • Total sets: 4 per workout (trained individuals) up to 8 per workout (trained athletes)
  • Rep Range: 1-5 reps/set
  • Rest between sets: 1-2 minutes+
  • Total volume per workout: Variable but 9-25 repetitions per exercise per workout seems to be a decent range
  • Frequency: Heavy twice/week, higher frequencies with submaximal loads if appropriate.
  • Exercise selection: Some specificity is required
  • Exercises per muscle group: 1-2 primary movements per workout heavy, everything else moderate or light
  • Failure or not: Depends on goals, phase of training, etc.

Read Categories of Weight Training: Part 10

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