I was born with a rebellious streak. It’s been with me just about every day of my 32-year existence. When I wake up every day, I know that I’ll probably do or say something that will probably be nothing more than an act of rebellion in some form or another against something that I see as wrong or unjust. I don’t know why that is. I just accept it as part of my nature. I can’t control it so I embrace it. It’s who I am.
Just like I can’t allow society’s rules to control the way I live, I also can’t let certain so-called rules control the way I train myself or my athletes. At the beginning of my career in this industry, I tried to follow all of the rules. However, I soon realized that, just like in the real world, the rules of the weight room are made to be broken.
The following are a few training rules that the “internet crowd” seems to follow to the letter. I’m not sure where these rules first started, but I’d like to be the first to address them in a whole new light. While these rules can sometimes be great, they can also, sometimes, really suck.
There is an inverse relationship between sets and reps.
Tell that to a world champion powerlifter. After he’s worked up to a heavy triple of somewhere around 700 lbs in the squat, explain to him that when you’re only doing three reps per set, you need to do at least six to ten sets. See what kind of reaction you get.
This rule has been around for years and too many people adhere to it like the gospel truth. The rule simply states that if you do a lot of reps, you don’t do a lot of sets. And if you do very few reps, you do a whole bunch of sets. Therefore, if you’re going to do sets of ten reps, you only need to do two to four sets. Conversely, if you’re going to do sets of three reps, you need to do six to ten sets. This is a great rule, BUT…the only problem is…this rule sucks.
Let me explain.
If you’re a beginner, this rule is great and should be followed. I’m sure everyone would agree with that, right? Wrong. I don’t even agree with that. The reason being that beginners don’t need to do low reps and should stick with an average rep scheme of eight to twelve for at least their first few months of training. With that technicality out of the way, I’ll say that this rule is great for those who are slightly past the raw beginner stage. When you’re first introduced to lower reps—say five per set—you should increase the amount of sets from when you were doing twelve reps. While you may have done three sets of twelve, you’ll now do five sets of five. The reason this rule makes sense for intermediate trainees is because they’re not as neurologically efficient and need repeated efforts to obtain a training effect. If you’re a regular reader of this site, I’m sure you’ve heard all of this before and understand exactly what I’m talking about. No further explanation needed.
So now that I’ve explained why and when that rule is great, let me now tell you why and when it sucks. Once you’ve moved out of the intermediate stages of training and into the somewhat advanced and fairly strong ones, this rule sucks. You simply can’t follow this rule when you’re strong. In fact, this rule actually becomes exactly the opposite of the truth when you’re strong. It does a complete 180. As you get stronger, you become more neurologically efficient. One of the implications of this is that it takes you fewer exposures to certain stressors to achieve the desired training effect. When you’re weak and can only bench press 135 lbs, you need a decent amount of volume to get bigger and stronger. Doing 105 lbs for five sets of five is easily doable. You could even do six sets of three with 125 lbs and get a good training effect. Try this when you can bench 405 lbs or worse yet, 500 lbs. It ain’t gonna happen.
When you get strong, this rule actually almost needs to be completely reversed. The first and most obvious reason is that you’re now more neurologically efficient and need fewer exposures to specific stressors to achieve the desired training effect. The second, and less obvious reason, is that when you’re benching 135 lbs, it takes you three sets to safely warm up to your starting weight. When you’re benching 405 lbs, it takes you quite a few more sets to safely warm up to that weight. This is extra training volume that needs to be accounted for yet no one ever brings up that important point. After a seven to ten set warm up, you can’t be expected to now do that many work sets. Benching 405 lbs is so much more demanding on your body than benching 135 lbs. You would be doing yourself more harm than good if you followed this rule. So when you’re going to do low reps at this stage of your training, you would actually be better served doing fewer sets. If you want to do sets of ten, you could probably get away with doing a few more sets then you could when you’re doing sets of three.
When you’re strong, this rule should read—there’s an equivalent relationship between sets and reps. The lower the reps, the lower the sets; the higher the reps, the higher the sets. Now this doesn’t mean that if you’re doing ten reps you should do ten sets. That would be ludicrous. It means that if you’re doing triples, the weight is going to be quite heavy and quite demanding on your CNS, joints, tendons, and ligaments. It also means that you’re going to be doing a lot of warm up sets. Therefore, you can’t do more than a few sets. On the other hand, if you’re doing sets of ten, you could get away with a couple more sets. Before you do anything in the gym, you always have to ask yourself what the reason for doing it is. If you’re doing three reps, the goal is strength. If you’re strong, you can achieve the goal of getting stronger in just a few sets. If you’re doing sets of ten, the goal is obviously hypertrophy. Since hypertrophy gains are associated with a higher volume of training (which in itself is disputable), you can see why you it may be possible to do more sets with the higher reps. It corresponds with the training goal.
There is an inverse relationship between reps and rest periods.
Again, this is a rule that only applies to beginners. I’ve seen newbies do set after set of twenty rep squats with barely the slightest increase in heart rate or perspiration. Last week, I decided to venture above six reps in the squat for the first time in years. After working up to a few heavy triples, I stripped the weight and decided to do a set of twenty reps nonstop for old time’s sake. After I racked the twentieth rep, I collapsed in a heap and couldn’t get off the floor for ten minutes. According to the rule in question, I should have been able to pick myself back up in roughly 90–120 seconds and repeat the effort with no problem.
So let me get this straight—what you’re telling me is that I need less rest after doing twenty eyeball exploding reps than I do after doing a set of two?!
While I understand that this rule is based on the recovery of the nervous system—and it makes sense from that perspective—I have to ask, what about every other system? And what about the puke that made its way halfway up my esophagus and could easily have sprayed the gym walls at any second? This needs to be taken into account.
When you’re weak, doing light weights for high reps takes nothing out of you. But you have to always ask yourself why you’re choosing a certain rep range. If you’re doing high reps, the goal is hypertrophy and/or endurance. Therefore, we don’t have to be overly worried about CNS recovery, and the rest periods can be somewhat shorter. The problem is that when you get stronger, you simply can’t follow this rule anymore because your recovery time will increase greatly. If you still followed this rule as an advanced lifter, your performance from one set to the next would drop drastically.
When bashing this rule for advanced lifters, however, I should point out that I’m only talking about extreme rep differences. If you’re doing singles and want full CNS recovery, you’re going to want to take a fairly long rest period between sets. So the difference between doing sets of one rep and sets of ten will not be that great. You’ll probably rest longer between the sets of singles. In this instance, this rule is great. But if you’re comparing singles to sets of twenty, especially in the case of a squat or deadlift, then this rule absolutely sucks.
The greater your training age, the lower your average number of reps in training should be.
As a beginner, the majority of your training should be spent doing higher reps. Sets of ten to twenty reps are the norm for most beginners, and they can make great progress with these loading parameters. After a year or so, it’s recommended that you start incorporating some heavier lifts into your training and lowering your reps. As time goes on, you should lower your average number of reps per set even more. This theory has stood the test of time. Thus, this is a great rule.
Except for one tiny problem…it sucks.
Like the other rules listed, this is one I followed for years with myself and all of my athletes. But then I began to think about this a little more seriously and realized that this was probably doing more harm than good. I discovered that with my twenty years of training, I should now be doing almost all of my training in the range of one to six reps. That’s a lot of heavy training, especially if you’re strong! So that means that I’m constantly going heavy all the time on everything and continually beating the shit out of my body. This just can’t be good. Somehow most bodybuilders and powerlifters never heard this rule and don’t abide by it. Yet, remarkably, they manage to still make progress and get bigger and stronger many years into their training careers. The reason they never heard of this rule is because they live in the weight room, not in the library or on internet training forums.
My friend Jim Wendler has squatted 1000 lbs in competition, yet he routinely does sets of eight to twelve reps on a regular basis. Dave Tate does the same thing. According to this rule, neither of them should make any progress whatsoever by doing reps that high. When I mentioned this to Dave, he looked at me in utter confusion. He had never heard the rule before and couldn’t begin to fathom how anyone could have come up with something so ridiculous. Every big guy he ever lifted with in all his years at Westside routinely did sets of eight to twelve reps and all continually grew bigger. What people need to realize is that when you get really strong, training takes quite a toll on your body. You just can’t go heavy all the time. You need some lighter training, which means higher reps. Lighter sets of higher reps can actually have a beneficial, almost restoration type of effect for the stronger lifter and can improve tendon and ligament strength. Higher (8–12) reps aid in recovery and get blood into the muscles. They also help build size no matter what your training age is.
If you’re a beginner or intermediate lifter, this rule is great. It even has some applications for the advanced lifter. However, when you start getting carried away with it and following charts that say you can only do six reps and under and are going incredibly heavy on every exercise that you do, this rule absolutely sucks.
Like I said, sometimes rules are made to be broken.