Counting Sets and Reps vs Total Workload

(Tl;dr below)


I’ve been experimenting with EDT (escalating density training) for the past couple weeks and loving it. But i’ve been thinking of something.

Classic muscle building guidelines state that you should come at least somewhat close to muscular failure each set, for a proper amount of reps, to get a stimulus.

EDT throws reps and sets out the window, and instead you have 15 minutes to do as many reps as you can (leaving some in the tank in order not to kill yourself), and once you get a certain number of reps, you increase the weight. How you get to that total number of reps doesn’t matter - therefore one could start doing an easy 4 reps with a 60%1RM, then walk around for a minute, then do maybe 6, then 5, etc. etc.

Therefore, the total workload is what matters and the progression is based on increasing its density in a given amount of time. But… If you’re simply doing 4 or 5 easy reps per set, are you even stimulating your muscles enough for them to grow?

Tl;dr: is doing 3 sets of 12 just as good for building muscle as, say, 6 sets of 6, with the same weight and roughly the same rest periods?

Interested to hear your opinions on this.

No, literature suggests sets 8-15 (some say up to 20) reps are most effective for muscle gain. That being said, if you’re doing 6x6 compared to say 4x9 (for a total of 36 reps), I would imagine you could use heavier weights for lesser-rep sets… so do that, in that case lol.

The total workload AKA “tonnage” is a solid metric to go by, so long as you’re being reasonable with your weight selection. 100 reps at 10lbs is probably not doing much compared to 50 reps at 20lbs, which have the same tonnage.

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There are different methods that play around with rest times, and density, intensity and whatnot. It all is very interesting as a discussion and a hypothesis. Also, some people, even lots of trainers, do not really study up on exercise science, so some of these things might seem like a good idea. A day ago, there even was an article posted here claiming “greatest arm workout” which had like 30 sec rest intervals between some exercises and that was where i closed that tab.

As interesting all these things are. As fun they all are to try. And as hyped up we always get when we start a new thing hoping this will be better than anything we have ever done…at this time of human scientific history, there really is no more discussions and theories needed at all. For at least 5 years now, there is a scientific consensus reached on reps, sets and rest intervals. I mean, its like…math nowdays. You cant really argue. And that is why we like these things - we hope we will break the science and find some magic in all of this. Sadly, there is none.

Studies and experts for years have shown the “optimal” numbers on all of this.

  1. 3minute rests provide more hypertrophy than 1minute rests. There is no data on 2 minutes, but the idea is that longer rests are better, so EDT and all the short rests go out the window.
  2. 6-30 reps per set, if intensity is similar.
  3. 10-20 sets per muscle group a week. And mostly closer to 10, than 20.
  4. Straight sets are better than any other type of Woodoo.
  5. Being 5 reps short of failure, still produces hypertrophy, so all the amraps and PRs on reps are only a fun thing to do, with no added benefit to growth. In fact, due to increased recovery time, it might actually be worse.

Im sure i forgot some other key points, but these pretty much havent even been debated for years now. Only people who still do some mumbo jumbo are the ones who just dont educate themselves and still live by whatever they read in some 90s Muscle magazines.

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If I used the same weight for all sets and was able to get the same amount of reps I would consider that wasted time training.

What if i put it this way…
The fact that you cant complete the same reps in all the sets with same weights means that something is not firing. And whats not firing is…upper threshold fibers cuz endurance fibers fire mostly always… Since upper threshold fibers are what make up for the most growth and strength, the fact that your first set was, lets say 15 reps, but the second was 10-12, means you basically did a half set, and didnt train the only fibers you are actually trying to train.
What happened after the first set? Did you lose weight? Did your muscle fell off? Why arent you able to do the same action twice?
Its either rest, or muscle damage. In both cases, if you cant replicate the same set, you are not doing much for the fibers we all are focusing on.

Since hypertrophy is stimulated being at least 5 reps short of failure, taking a 15rep max and doing 5x10, with each set getting a bit closer to failure, is an absolutely perfect way to train for hypertrophy. First set is like 5 reps shy, last set is like 1 rep shy of failure. All of them stimulate hypertrophy and since you can replicate the same speed and amount of reps, in all of them you activate your higher threshold fibers.
Many experts have written about this, that not being able to get the same reps, means you need to take longer breaks. And if taking longer breaks still dont make up for it, your training is done. At least for that muscle that cant complete the amount of reps it could like 10 mins ago.

What you think about this?

If you’re only doing 6 reps of a weight you can do 12 with then in my mind that’s either a warmup, technique/speed work, or just sandbagging. Depending on the rest time you might only get to what a lot of coaches call “effective reps” on your last sets, and that’s not even guaranteed depending on work capacity.

I believe it has value in things like EMOM and other styles, but on it’s own it just looks like a waste of time.

I always trained legs in this fashion. I never went to failure doing squats or leg presses (with very, very few exceptions.)

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There are lots of studies that suggest that people who have more experience, can start firing upper threshold fibers being further from the failure. If a beginner cant do that not reaching failure, lots of big guys actually can manage to fire them all within first reps of a set. And then, as soon as the speed starts to reduce, you can take it as a sign that fast twitch fibers are done, and everything else is just demolishing your joints and recovery, for much less benefit of hypertrophy.

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I think you wasted energy, are spending too much time on one exercise and most likely too much time in the gym.

First, how do you know that was your 15 rep max? Most people have no idea what training to failure is let alone what 5 reps away from failure would be.

You could have most likely used much more weight for a top set lowered the weight for a back off set at higher reps to failure and hit all the fibers.

*obviously there are many ways to do it but, for a trainee especially a natural I believe pushing it and in a sense trying to beat the log book is best. Less room for messing up.

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The optimal amount of sets per muscle is basically set in stone for the last years, as i mentioned bef ore.

Completely untrue.
Back off sets dont produce as much hypertrophy as straight sets done with a proper rest. Its just like…old info already. There are boatloads of videos with references to studies, and studies themselves on all of this. There is no debate. There is just the fact if one wants to just google these basics.

And a big reason for that wide variance is because people do not know what training to failure is. Those studies are mostly done on untrained individuals.

I do 6-8 sets per muscle group. During certain times I have gone to 10 but, it is rare. I do the same with all the people I have trained.

Yet this is exactly how EDT is instructed to be performed:

"Start each PR zone by performing around 50% of the reps you could do in an all-out set to avoid reaching exhaustion too soon. The idea is to try and perform as many reps per PR zone as possible, so pacing is important. Fatigue should accumulate gradually and not peak too soon.

In fact, the first few rounds should feel relatively easy but don’t worry, things will start to get more demanding as the PR zone progresses. Just keep moving back and forth between your paired exercises, resting only when you need to."

So, let’s say my goal is to break last week’s record of 26 reps in 15 mins.

I crank out sets of 6, 6, 4, 4, 3, 2, and 2 reps. Great, i’ve broken my record.

Yes, since the entire thing is completely intuitive, the first couple sets might feel like warmup. But there are so many total sets, that they must make up for it in effectiveness?

So is this really so much worse than a straight-up 3x10, with each set within 2-3 reps of failure?

I was answering how you explained it in your TL;DR, which is completely different from that. You said “same weight, same rest times”. With what you described though…

I’m in the camp of “the best thing to do is the thing that you aren’t doing, but after a short while something else is now the best thing”. If you’ve done 3x10 for a whole bunch of time, then what you’re suggesting might actually be better. But that doesn’t make it better (dependant on goals). This goes from the most simple things to the most complex. I never do front squats, so they could be amazing for me right now, so could Rest-Pause training. If I did that for 6 months (or even just 6-12 weeks), something else might be better.

…but then, sometimes just chasing +1s is enough.

What studies? This is a line from the volume is king crowd.

In my personal opinion your EDT training looks a bit like circuit training for metabolic conditioning. If I were to apply a similar approach, I would do so after a longer lay-off - as a foundation for heavier training. It seems a bit complicated though, as you will reach an exhaustion phase sooner or later - where the idea only leads to overtraining.

What are your goals? Conditioning, strength or mass? The EDT approach would be conditioning as far as I’m concerned.

If I were to suggest something even more important than reps, sets and tonnage - it is the necessity of periodization (against adaptation). Apply a different approach on each training day a week - or change a fixed direction at least every 3rd month. Please have a look at Fortitude Training - the best of both worlds as it is very varied and user friendly. You need to make sure your efforts lead somewhere.

To be completely honest… the only reason I wanted to start doing EDT is simplicity of programming. I’m not a professional strength athlete, just a passionate gym-goer, and before this, I have been on stuff like 5/3/1, Westside conjugate and a couple hypertrophy programs. My life outside the gym is so complex and mentally draining, that I simply wanted to stop calculating percentages and planning out different excercises and rep ranges and whatnot for every week… instead, I would have a fixed weight, a time limit, and I just have to beat the previous rep record to progress. It’s the simplest thing I could think of, outside dropping programming completely and just winging it in the gym (which I have considered as well.)

But if EDT doesn’t work for what I want, then I suppose… that sucks.

Or i’ll just go back to doing regular sets and reps or… yeah, I don’t even know anymore.

Yeah, i’m going back to regular good 'ol straight sets, with no percentages or undulation or density or whatever

Thank you all for your informative replies

This is like asking where is the proof that the earth is round. You said you train clients. You should read up on latest 10 years of information on your field man. Ofc i dont save random links to everything, in case i need to “prove” smth.
If you would just google about that, the first 10 links and the first 10 YouTube vids would more or less support everything i said. As i mentioned, it is a scientific consensus for years by now. Its the same thing going in circles for so many times, its rare that people still debate some of that.

Anyways, the reason you ask, is that you didnt care to know it for the last 5-10 years, which means that even if i post 10 materials on that, it wont change your mind. So this is not really about proving anything to anyone. I just mentioned that for people who might spend like 15 mins to watch a vid on YouTube about basics.

There is just no one way or best way to increase muscle mass. Some IFBB pros work in the high intensity region and some others work with relatively light weight for their strength capacity and solely seem to be training for a pump. Both work. I cannot die on any hill as the best method. I’ve just seen too many people make progress a number of different methods. (And I have seen too many people make nearly no progress.)

You can claim that they just have great genetics. And you might be absolutely correct. But I just cannot see a program that works best for a hard gainer is the Holy Grail solution to optimal training for all different genetic athletes.

All that said, I see no reason for not turning over every rock in your quest for the best routine(s). It was said here, and has been said in most threads that the best routine is the best routine for only a few weeks before your body adapts to the stimulus.

Sounds like you just need to do Thibaudeau’s idea of triple progression. Do 4-5 sets of a main lift in a rep range until you stop progressing, then change your rep zone. Read the section on triple progression here (as well as the rest of this article):

It doesn’t have to be a lift-specific split though, pick a split here that appeals to you most

I used a Modified Hatfield split with this triple-progression model and made consistent progress for a long time. Just make sure you stay in a rep zone long enough before moving out of it.

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