“How many sets of the bench press are optimal for chest development?”
“How many reps should I do on my working sets?”
“Light weights for the lean/ athletic look, heavy weights for the bodybuilder physique, right?”
The first time I ever picked up a fitness magazine, I felt an instant rush going through my body. As a kid growing up watching way too many martial arts flicks (Van Damme all the way!) and wanting to look like the guys onscreen, I was the perfect recipient for empty fitness promises.
Flipping through the pages, I stumbled across the first training instructions in my young lifting career. It was the first time I read about sets and reps.
With the knowledge of the entire fitness universe backing me up, I was ready to transform myself into a lean and mean ass-kicking machine. Little did I know, the road ahead would be long and grueling, full of uncertainty, set-backs and disappointments.
Using sets and reps for orientation
As a beginner you’ll make improvements regardless of training style or intensity. These so-called “noob gains” are your body’s response to the novel training stimulus. But progress will slow down and come to a halt eventually, forcing you to look for alternate methods of conducting your training.
After close to 15 years of working out, I now understand that sets and reps are given way too much attention, while the real reasons behind physical adaptation are only vaguely touched upon.
“Numbers offer clear guidelines. How else do you think a trainee can gauge his/her training progress?”
I understand the value of offering guidelines. Especially for novice athletes. My issue with this approach is that it promotes “blindness”. Let me elaborate.
These pre-determined figures teach us to focus on numbers over instincts and bodily signals. Right from the get-go, you learn to pay attention to the wrong things (external rather than internal data).
When you’re working merely to reach a predetermined amount of repetitions or sets, you’re not really training your muscles, you’re simply pleasing the ego.
Your typical fitness magazine workout will read something like this:
– Bench press 4x 12 (= 4 sets of 12 repetitions)
– Dips 3x 10
– Crossovers 4x 15
– Push-ups 3x 20
“I did 5 sets of 10 reps, just like the guy in the magazine. Time to buy bigger clothes.”
But did you really push yourself to the limit in that last set of dips? Did you give it your all when you performed your half-rep squats? Or did you just try and get it over with, so you could finally pound that post-workout shake?
Don’t just go through the motions
Do everything with purpose when you’re at the gym. Every repetition, every set, every breath should have a clear purpose.
Use the numbers for orientation, not for guidance.
Would you rather focus on a particular number or on your body telling you there’s still one or two extra reps left in the tank? Sets and reps are helpful for measuring progress and giving athletes an idea of what they should aim for. As you know by now, I’m a big fan of tracking your workouts. But don’t put numbers above bodily signals. Find a middle ground. This is especially important later in your training career.
“How should I train then? What should I be focusing on? How do I gauge progress?”
I just took a wild swing at everything you were taught about training. I realize that. But let me offer you a “behind the scenes” look at muscular development.
What causes muscles to grow?
Muscle growth is the result of muscular hypertrophy or hyperplasia. The former being an increase in muscle fiber size (volume), while the latter describes an increase in the number of muscle fibers (and plays little to no role in actual muscle growth).
Mechanical tension+ muscle damage+ metabolic stress= muscular growth
The mechanical tension produced by lifting progressively heavier weights (or performing progressive calisthenics) is the trigger for muscular adaptation.“In addition to activation of mTOR, mechano-overload triggers genes encoding growth factors and myogenic regulatory factors (MRFs), which turn on satellite cells to commit and differentiate into new muscle cells.” (Hofmekler, 2011)
Intense training produces micro-tears within the muscle. In order to protect itself from future assaults, the body sends out inflammatory cytokines to repair and strengthen the damaged muscle fibers. Lastly, the hormonal cascade (IGF-1, growth hormone and testosterone) released in response to the metabolic stress, ensures your training efforts lead to real-world gains (given that sufficient nutrition and rest are provided).
Stress is the key to muscular adaptation. You have to challenge yourself! Get uncomfortable, push harder than you think you can and you’ll reap the rewards.
“How many sets and reps should I be doing?”
If you’re remotely invested in the fitness community, you’ve probably heard of “optimal” rep ranges for muscular growth. Some people go so far as to recommend specific rep ranges for particular training goals, muscles and even exercises. But there is no optimal rep scheme you should consciously aim for.
“Optimal hypertrophy training is muscle specific.” (Henselmans, 2011).
According to this statement, you would think there’s a perfect rep range for every muscle. While the different muscle groups do require different rep ranges for optimal hypertrophy, this perspective might still be too myopic. Let me take it a step further. I believe optimal hypertrophy is not only muscle specific, but also highly individual.
Frank might be stimulating his biceps best by training in the 6-8 rep range while you might need to hit 10-12 reps for optimal gains. Play around with the number of sets and reps in your workouts. Figure out what works best for you.
Find the right combination of training volume and intensity for you.
I recommend doing 1-2 warm-up sets per exercise and 2-4 intense work sets. But this is just one way of doing it. Vince Gironda (“The Iron Guru”), one of the smartest individuals to ever grace the bodybuilding world, preferred an 8×8 (8 sets of 8 reps with 15-20 sec rest between sets) rep scheme for most muscle groups.
There is no magic formula. Focus on progressively overloading your body. Get stronger in different rep ranges and you’re certain to make continuous gains in size and strength.
Find purpose in your training
Before you head out to the gym, take some time to think about your training. Visualize the exercises, the rep ranges you’ll be shooting for and the amount of work you’ll do. Also clearly visualize your goals. See your goal physique before you as you train (Arnold always talked about the power of visualization).
Ask yourself what purpose a particular exercise or intensity technique serves. Is it in alignment with your personal goals? Are you making sure you’re moving closer to your personal goals?
And when you get to the gym (or wherever you train), train intensely. Get stronger, faster, and better conditioned. I’m not a fan of working out very frequently (I rarely train more than 3 days a week) but I’m a big believer in hard and intense training. Get in there, train like an animal, and go home.
As previously mentioned, progress will stall eventually. That is inevitable and perfectly natural. Deal with it. Find ways to move through those plateaus. Decrease training frequency, switch up your workouts, incorporate new drills and focus on different parameters for gauging success. Rest times, total workout time, muscular pump, exercise form, time under tension and perceived intensity. Never rely solely on numbers when analyzing progress.
Give your body a reason to change and it will respond.
Once you understand how muscular development works, you’ll realize how futile these weights vs. calisthenics, short vs. long rest periods or high rep vs. low rep training debates are.
There simply is no one way of getting the job done. Experiment. Try different approaches and figure out what works best for you personally.
Thank you for reading
Henselmanns, M. (2011). Muscle Specific Hypertrophy: Chest, Triceps and Shoulders. https://www.t-nation.com/training/muscle-specific-hypertrophy-chest-triceps-and-shoulders
Hofmekler, O. (2011). Unlock Your Muscle Gene. Trigger the Biological Mechanisms That Transform Your Body and Extend Your Life. Berkely: North Atlantic Books
, G.E./ , W.C./ , A./ , P.M./ Muscle fiber hypertrophy, hyperplasia, and capillary density in college men after resistance training.