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Categories of Weight Training: Part 9

Ok, now that this series has gone completely off the rails as I seem intent on adding more and more information to it, let me actually attempt to finish up what I talked about in Part 8 which was a mish-mosh discussion about training frequency and intensity.  From that I basically concluded that despite the general tendency for elite strength athletes (who are not really representative of most athletes in general much less the general public) to train more and more and more, a rough frequency of two heavy workouts per week per muscle group is ideal for maximal strength training methods.  Yes, that’s a very quick summary, for more go back to Part 8.

So let’s finish this up by looking at 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.

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 theKorte3X3 systemwith 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.

As I talked about in the last part, in the Rhea analyses I linked to in part 8, untrained individuals were found to get optimal strength gains with 3 sets of an exercise, trained folks 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.

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

But clearly 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.  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.

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.  By the time you’re doing singles with anything close to 100% of maximum, you’re simply not going to be doing a lot of volume.  If you have great work capacity, you might get a few repetitions.   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.

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).

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.  Or you could work at 85% (again, 5RM) and only do triples (allowing you to do far more sets at a higher quality in terms of movement speed and technique).

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.

Some readers may be familiar with Prilepen’s table which I’ve reproduced below which is one approach to volume per workout.  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.

Percent Max Reps Per Set Reps/Set Reps/Workout Optimal Reps/Workout
55-65% Maybe 15-20 or more 3-6 12-24 24
70-75% 10-12 3-6 12-24 18
80-85% 5-8 2-4 10-20 15
90%+ 3 1-2 4-10 7


Ok, first off the column I added is the max reps per set, where I indicated, on average, how many reps someone would get to failure with that percentage.  You’ll note that in all cases, the recommended reps per set is perhaps half of the maximum possible.  So for the 80-85% range, while someone might grind out 5-8 reps to failure, an OL’er might do 2-4 reps/set ensuring maximum quality on every repetition.  Again keep in mind the importance of explosive strength and speed of movement for that sport, a powerlifter or someone needing more maximum strength per se might work at slightly higher repetition range (i.e. sets of 4 at 85%, sets of 6 at 80%).  The occasional all out set might also be done.

Beyond that, to read the chart, you take your loading percentage, determine reps per set and then look at the range of total reps/workout and optimal reps per workout. So if you were working at 80-85% of maximum, while you might be capable of 5-8 reps to failure, you’d actually do 2-4 reps/set with a range of 10-20 total reps and an optimal loading of ~15 reps.    That could be 4 sets of 4, 5 sets of 3, or 8 sets of 2.

You can also get into complicated set and rep schemes in a given workout and systems like Sheiko/Smolov do exactly that.  In general powerlifting inspired programs have typically used static set and rep schemes (typically cycling from higher to lower repetitions) while Olympic lifting inspired programs get into a lot variety and pyramids (i.e. 2 sets of 4, 2 sets of 3, 1 sets of 2, and  2 sets of 1 is 16 reps).

If you were working at 90%, with a maximum reps per set of 3, you might do 1-2 reps/set for a total of 4-10 per workout and an optimal load of 7 reps. So you could do 7 singles at 90% (good luck), or 4 sets of 2 (8 reps) or something along those lines.  Again those numbers would be for someone with very good recovery; normal humans might do half of that.

Let me note before folks get confused, even though the charts above (and below) include low loading percentages, that doesn’t change what I wrote about optimal loading intensities. 55% isn’t going to generate strength gains in anybody but a beginning untrained lifter and most trained folks need an average of at least 80-85% to make gains in maximal strength.  The lower loading percentages are just for warm-up sets and supplemental work mainly

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 as is Brian Carrol’s 10/20/Life approach.

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.

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 the excellent Practical Programming for Strength Training by Rippetoe and Kilgore has seen the Texas method: 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.  So go do that.


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).

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 (more if warmups 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.


.Loading Parameter 5: Exercise Selection

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 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 is carryover/transfer from related movements (in general, the further away you get from the movement you’re trying to improve and the closer you work to it the more 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.

When you start talking about exercise selection for sport 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.  I’ll point you to an excellent article by Greg Knuckols in the interim.

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.

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.


Summing Up

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.

And that’s finally that.  Next time I’ll finally take a look at the recent paper by Brad Schoenfeld that looked very concretely at the effect of hypertrophy vs. maximal strength training on measures of muscle growth and strength.  See you then.

Read Categories of Weight Training: Part 10

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