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Importance of Sets vs. Total Reps

Is there any difference in strength or hypertrophy gains between various set and rep schemes when the total number of reps and amount of weight used is the same? For example, when doing squats with 300 lbs, would 1x30, 3x10, 5x6, 6x5, 10x3 and 30x1 (sets x reps) all yield the same results? Does the length of a set have any meaningful impact when the total volume is the same?

Fewer reps per set mean less fatigue and more precise execution. More sets of lower reps give you more chances for First Reps and practicing set up. For like “practice” and “skill.” Like Olympic lifters, the Hepburn Method, or a dude swinging a golf club.

More reps over fewer sets means more fatigue, bigger muscles and hypertrophy. 3 x 10 is like the Standard Mass workout.

30 reps squats are like old school HIT/Dr Ken style conditioning work with weights. Technique might look a little different than the super tight, strict execution of the lower rep sets.

Your example is a little silly because a weight you could use for 30 straight reps wouldn’t be very effective for 10 sets of 3, it would be pretty light.

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Depends how challenging that 300 pounds is for the lifter (as in, what %RM it is). A lifter who can use 300 pounds for a set of 30 is going to look different than a lifter who can only move 300 for a set of 5. So applying a universal weight doesn’t clear things up any. Calculating load with a given percentage makes more sense.

Total volume works in conjunction with load (and frequency) to determine results. Chad Waterbury talked about this basic idea here: https://www.t-nation.com/training/set-rep-bible

If my 10RM is 225, I’m going to get different results doing 225 for 3x10 vs doing 225 (or, realistically, 265) for 10x3. Again, this is something Waterbury was preaching years ago: https://www.t-nation.com/training/science-of-10-x-3

Yep. It’ll affect muscle fiber recruitment, which is determined primarily by load. If a set lasts a long time, it means you were using a light weight which activates different muscles than heavy weights.

The length of each set will also affect “metabolic stress” (a.k.a. the pump or muscle damage) which will influence the hypertrophy response. It’s why singles and doubles aren’t really used in bodybuilding.

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Jinx!

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Thanks for the detailed response and links. My issue is that I pretty much suck at high rep sets. My current 1RM for squats is 430lbs. as tested 3 weeks ago. I lift at home and have a squat rack in which I set up a box as a target for my butt to hit as a depth gauge. If my butt doesn’t touch the box, I don’t count the rep. In this way, I can be pretty consistent in terms of how deep I squat since I never have anyone there to watch me and I find that taking a video with my phone isn’t as accurate because, even if I put the phone in the exact same spot, even a slightly different angle will make my squat depth look quite different. According to the online one rep max calculators, with a 1RM squat of 430, my 8 rep max should be around 344lbs. There is no way in hell I could possibly hit a set of 8 using 344bs. I was doing some sets with 335 last night and could barely bang out one set of 5. However, I can grind out sets of 3 at that weight all night long. Similarly, I could hit 1 or 2 reps at about 390lbs while the calculator says I should be getting 4 reps at that weight. The same thing happens for me on most lifts unless I drop the weight down quite low. I’m running a program which calls for 6 sets of 6 reps right now and there’s no way I could hit that but I can get the 36 total reps at that weight if I do it in sets of 3 or 4. Hence my question as to whether it matters how the total reps at a weight are broken up into sets. It’s like my muscles seize up after anything but low rep sets.

You can’t Train with your Maximum, even if its theoretical. It takes time to build your 1 rep max, and it will take time to build your 6 or 8 rep max.

instead of starting at like 340 x 6 x 6, start with like 265 x 6 x 6.

Then 285 x 6 x 6
Then 305 x 6 x 6

Crush the early workouts and build the endurance, to Build the capacity to handle the reps.

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I’m 38 and, up to now, have almost always trained with lower rep ranges and heavier weights. I know that most experts state you should start to back off on the heavy weights as you approach and pass 40 but, I can admit that my ego is making it hard to do that. I look at it as an admission of “oldmanhood” even though my joints and back are already admitting that. Unfortunately, I usually only make such changes in my life when I’m forced to by injury, etc.
I think your advice is solid, it’s just wrapping my head around the concept of progressing while using lighter weights. I’m a very binary thinker and, for me, it’s always been big weight = strength, light weight = loss of strength.

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It’s OK if the weights go down, but they have to build back up!

You might try a program with scripted percentages (or intensities) to give some advice about how much to lift and how to progress over the training cycle. Just a little guidance, to show you how to “use” different weights.

I’m 39, and I used to love my 3s and 5s, so I know just what you mean. In the past, if I wanted to use sets of 6, I’d just work up to a hard sets of 6 and use that as the number to beat. Then quickly burn out in 2-3 weeks trying to exceed that number.

As I used more scripted programs from more respected coaches I learned that you want to start a little easier, to give yourself some room to progress, and to develop whatever you’re trying to develop over the course of the training cycle.

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I use to be the same way man stayed primarily in the 3-5 range for lots of sets. You should be building strength in different rep ranges. Took me years to learn this. Start light and build up. You are not going to “lose” strength during the process. Your body is just not use to high rep sets. Take 2-4 weeks to get your body use to it and you’ll quickly see those 8’s, 10’s, and maybe even 20’s climb up!

Just to give you an example when I did a program recently my first week I did 335 @ 3x8 and 12 weeks later I hit 500x1.

^This exactly! Take a few weeks to build up and learn and get your joints and body use to the reps. You WILL not lose strength. Will you lose some “top end” strength? Yeah sure, but unless you are a powerlifter you don’t need to be doing any 1RM testing at all. Honestly you don’t even need to do 3’s lol. Most people should stick in that 5-10 reps per set range for major lifts and 8-20 reps per set in the minor lifts.

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100% agree with this. Don’t use your true 1RM when figuring out your percentages. Use about 90% as a Training Max, and build your workout and percentages as if your training max was your 1RM. You’ll be able to progress consistently, and before you know it, your real 1RM will be your new training max!

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Thanks for all the responses! I’ve been giving this a lot of thought since yesterday as I’ve been reading the feedback and have come to the decision to push strength gains in higher rep ranges for the next few months. I’m planning on keeping in the 8-20 rep range and forgetting about maximal strength for a while. After this, I’ll see how my body’s doing and think about giving some lower ranges a try again.

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One and one is two. Just like you’ll be weaker in any exercise you haven’t done in a few months, you’ll be weaker in rep ranges that you’re not used to working in. Body the body adapts like it’s designed to do.

The change of pace focusing on rep maxes will definitely be good - for size, for your joints, for all-around strength and shoring up lagging points.

This is one big problem with online calculators. They’re overly generalized. Either work off actual tested numbers or skip percentages altogether and autoregulate during sessions based on each individual set.

As a reminder, lighter weight/higher rep training does not mean getting weaker.

Nobody’s giggling at this tiny, weak dork with his easy high-rep work.

Thanks for the response. I’m actually really excited to try this type of training for a change…been stuck in a rut lately.
The most amazing thing about that video is that the lifter didn’t even seem to fully lock out a rep at the top until number 9. He kept constant tension on the muscles until about the 8th or 9th rep. Maybe that’s why his quads are Christmas ham size.
(not loving the choice of shorts though)

What sorta shorts do you prefer your men in?

Something that I can’t picture my wife wearing is usually a good rule of thumb, lol!

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I just want to follow this up with a caveat, which speaks to the heart of this thread and something that took a while for me to understand about Waterbury’s stuff.

The sets have to be “stimulatory” , meaning you have to work “hard”, which for Waterbury means until the reps slow down or your form changes.

In regards to this thread, If you can legit squat 225 x 30, doing 30 singles or even 10x3 or 4x6 or 3x10 will likely have almost no effect because the effort is so low. Waterbury programs his workouts by total number of reps, but all of his sets so that by the last rep you have fatigued the desired muscle fibers. Thats why he says “the amount of sets dont matter”, its because he has programmed the reps to achieve a certain goal and the sets take care of the themselves… but ONLY if you have the load right.

This speaks to what I was originally wondering about. I assume that there has to be a threshold of effort in a set that must be crossed for it to have a training effect. In that article Chris posted, Waterbury talks about the activation of different types of motor units…I assume this is what you are getting at. It’s why I also wonder when reading in an article about total volume done as represented by reps x weight for all sets added together whether this is a good way to determine total work. Authors will sometimes say “well in the first set and rep scheme total work done was 20000lbs but in the second one it was 24000 lbs so the second scheme will produce a bigger training effect.” While in many (probably most) instances this is true, I think it is misleading because you could theoretically perform a ton of “junk” volume with weights that are too light to elicit a training effect but when added all up, the total volume could be much higher than that of another program. What I was planning on doing for the next few months was transitioning to lighter weights and higher reps but keep the weights heavy enough so that I’m always approaching or hitting failure. I know different lifters and coaches have very different feelings about whether you should hit failure but, I figure if I’m hitting it or getting within a rep of it, I must be crossing that magical threshold where weight intersects with reps and sets to produce strength and hypertrophy gains. This would also allow me to lift intuitively such that if I’m always lifting to near failure, regardless of the actual reps or sets done or weight lifted on a particular day, I should always be eliciting gains. Correct?
P.S. I lift 3 days a week and have a sedentary job so I’m assuming recovery shouldn’t be a major obstacle.

Yeah I never liked the “total tonnage” idea either, because as you said you could quite easily lift 100x12 for 3 sets which will be vastly different than a hard set of 225x12.

It’s really only useful in the context if a comparable effort from a recent workout. Say for example you find a certain weight hard this week and this can’t get as many reps per set, this you add a set or something like that.

I think you’re on to something with the “always coming close to failure” goal as a metric for effective training, and if you follow the set/rep bible from earlier should be in the ballpark of “enough” work (although that article assumes you are hitting things 3x a week, which is an unstated premise)

I forget the quote but one of those Russian guys has said that It’s not enough to recruit a muscle, you have to fatigue it as well for it to be “trained”

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A muscle that is recruited but not fatigued is not trained .

Vladimir Zatsiorsky

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Thats the one!

So in regards to the topic of this thread, in the Waterbury style you have 3 different principles:

  • Use compound lifts so that you are recruiting as many muscles as possible

  • Lift the weight as fast as possible to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible

  • Lift to the point of muscle fatigue (as measured by form change or rep speed decrease) to make sure the muscle is fatigued and thus trained

So Lifting your 30RM for 30 singles wont do shit because it isnt fatiguing the fibers, thus leaving them untrained

Waterbury does like to use short rest periods to build fatigue though. As a classic Waterbury example, you might start with a weight you could 5-6 times, but do 10 sets of 3 with very short rest periods (45 seconds lets say, basically EMOM) and by the 10th set you have maximally recruited and then fatigued those muscles.

In his newer stuff he has since abandoned a rigid set x rep scheme system though (aka 4x6), and just uses the total rep system in its place(aka do 24 reps with a 6 RM), as his experience lead him to believe the differences in rep schemes (4x6 vs 5x5 vs 8x3 vs 3x8 as examples) are not significant enough to be worth the headache of figuring out the “perfect” load and rest periods to use

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