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The Rep Scheme Manifesto

Training / 22 February, 2018 /

By Stephane Cazeault

In the world of program design, the repetition is king. The reps dictate the training response. It is widely accepted that lower reps are the ideal stimulus for strength, while higher reps are the determinant of muscle hypertrophy. We all have seen the classic 3 sets of 12 or the 5 sets of 5 in most bodybuilding magazines. When I was first introduced to strength training at the age of 11, it all seemed so simple; if you want to grow: do sets of 12 on every exercise, if you want to get stronger: do sets of 5.

When I was 14 years old, I joined an old-school bodybuilding gym in Saint-Césaire (Québec) because I wanted to become “serious” about my training. I wanted to increase my chance to become an IFBB pro bodybuilder (yes, I really thought I could make it as a bodybuilder and look like Bertil Fox). The gym owner listened to my goal and designed a training program, which looking back was quite ridiculous. All 8 exercises of each workout had the following descending rep scheme:

Set 1: 20 reps

Set 2: 15 reps

Set 3: 12 reps

Set 4: 10 reps

Set 5: 8 reps

Set 6: 6 reps

Needless to say, this was quite the lengthy training session. This was my first exposure to a “fancy” rep scheme. Before this training program, all I had done was the standard 3 x 12, 4 x 10, 5 x 6, etc., With this program, using this “advanced” rep selection, I knew I was on my way to bodybuilding stardom.

Fortunately, I now understand that there is much more behind sets and repetitions. In this article, we will cover some more intricate rep schemes, how to appropriately load each set according to the outcome of the rep selection and finally, determine the best timing of each rep scheme as it pertains to its training effect. If you wish to delve into the theory and application of my favorite rep schemes, keep reading!  

I will present the rep schemes in the exact order in which they should be introduced to a new trainee.

For the purpose of this article, note that each weight example assumes a 1RM of 315 lbs.

Standard Sets

Standard sets are the most basic sets and reps combination you will find in a training program. Here are common examples:

3 x 10-12

4 x 8-10

4 x 6-8

5 x 4-6

5 x 3-5

6 x 2-4

7 x 2-3

These rep schemes use a rep range to account for a strength drop-off from residual fatigue through the sets. There are two ways to load Standard Sets.

  1. Constant Loading: The same load is maintained throughout the sets.

Here is an example using 4 x 8-10:

Set 1: 10 reps @ 210

Set 2: 10 reps @ 210

Set 3: 10 reps @ 210

Set 4: 10 reps @ 210

This rep scheme assumes that the load is below the 10RM mark. The goal is creating a strength adaptation through repeated exposure to a given load.

  1. Step Loading: The load is slowly increased from set to set.

Example:

Set 1: 10 reps @ 210

Set 2: 10 reps @ 215

Set 3: 10 reps @ 220

Set 4: 10 reps @ 225

This rep scheme assumes that the initial load is below the 10RM mark. The goal is creating a strength adaptation through slow and progressive increase in exercise load. If fatigue prevents the lifter to perform the top-end of the range on all sets, here is how you would manipulate the load:

Set 1: 10 reps @ 210

Set 2: 10 reps @ 215

Set 3: 9 reps @ 220

Set 4: 8 reps @ 220

When you are successful at reaching the highest repetition of the range, you go up in weight by 2%, but if you are unsuccessful, you maintain the load for the following set.

Standard Sets are the most basic sets and reps selection and they should represent the majority of the training year.

Descending Reps

Descending Reps should be the first repetition set-up you introduce after the Standard Sets. Here is an example of a Descending Rep protocol:

8,7,6,5,4

Set 1: 8 reps @ 240

Set 2: 7 reps @ 245

Set 3: 6 reps @ 250

Set 4: 5 reps @ 255

Set 5: 4 reps @ 260

This rep scheme assumes that the starting load is slightly below the 8RM mark. The goal is creating a strength adaptation through progressive increases in exercise load from set to set. The weight increase from each set should be 2-3%. Make sure you stay conservative with the initial weight selection so that you can perform the exact repetition called for on each set. Assuming adequate rest periods, a drop-off in reps would signify a starting weight that is too high.

Ascending Reps

Ascending Reps are the opposite of Descending Reps where the first set is the heaviest and the load progressively decreases as the sets progress.

4,5,6,7,8

Set 1: 4 reps @ 260

Set 2: 5 reps @ 255

Set 3: 6 reps @ 250

Set 4: 7 reps @ 245

Set 5: 8 reps @ 240

This rep scheme assumes that the starting load is slightly below the 4RM mark. The goal is to complete the heaviest load early when the nervous system is rested. The following sets are used to create more metabolic stress by reducing the load and increasing the reps. With this system, you have to make sure to use a more extensive warm-up to allow the body to be ready for the heavy load on the first set. The weight decrease following each set should be 2-3%. Make sure you stay conservative with the initial load selection so that you can perform the exact repetition called for on each set. Assuming adequate rest periods, a drop-off in reps would signify a starting weight that is too high.

Pyramid

Once you have learned to descend and ascend your repetitions, you can now incorporate a pyramid rep protocol into your training plan. Here is an example of one of my favorite Pyramid systems:

8,6,4,4,6,8

Set 1: 8 reps @ 240

Set 2: 6 reps @ 255

Set 3: 4 reps @ 270

Set 4: 4 reps @ 270

Set 5: 6 reps @ 255

Set 6: 8 reps @ 240

This rep scheme assumes that the initial weight is slightly below the 8RM mark. The goal is to quickly progress to a double exposure of the heaviest load, followed by a decrease in intensity to create a metabolic response towards the end of the lift series. The weight fluctuations between sets should be around 5%. Make sure you stay conservative with the initial load selection so that you can perform the exact repetition called for on each set. Assuming adequate rest periods, a drop-off in reps would signify a starting weight that is too high. That being said, keep in mind that going back up in repetitions (4,6,8) following the peak will be more demanding than the initial descent (8,6,4).

Stage System

The Stage System is one of the most effective rep schemes for strength development. This set and rep protocol is characterized by the completion of multiple sets (2 to 5) at the same weight spread over different intensities. The training effect occurs through nervous system adaptations from repeated exposures to a given load. Here are some examples of Stage Systems:

8,8,6,6,4,4

5,5,5,3,3,3

2,2,4,4,6,6

3,3,3,2,2,2

When you first introduce Stage Systems, make sure to implement rep schemes of only two exposures per intensity. As the trainee’s ability to withstand repeated efforts improves, progress to systems of three or more sets at a specific intensity.

The Stage System Descending is one of my favorite rep schemes. It is a great way to progressively promote work capacity towards higher training intensities. Here is my favorite Stage Descending:

7,7,5,5,3,3

Set 1: 7 reps @ 245

Set 2: 7 reps @ 245

Set 3: 5 reps @ 260

Set 4: 5 reps @ 260

Set 5: 3 reps @ 275

Set 6: 3 reps @ 275

This rep scheme assumes that the starting load is slightly below the 7RM mark. The goal here is creating a strength adaptation through repeated exposure to a load while progressing to a peak intensity for the exercise. The weight remains constant on two consecutive sets before the load is increased by about 5% for the following two sets. This process is continued until all sets are completed. Make sure you stay conservative with the initial load selection so that you can perform the exact repetition called for on each set. Assuming adequate rest periods, a drop-off in reps would signify a starting weight that is too high.

Now let’s take a look at the Stage System Ascending. This method is for more advanced lifters, and the application is the complete opposite of the Stage System Descending. Here the first two sets are the heaviest, and the load progressively decreases as the stages progress.

3,3,5,5,7,7

Set 1: 3 reps @ 275

Set 2: 3 reps @ 275

Set 3: 5 reps @ 260

Set 4: 5 reps @ 260

Set 5: 7 reps @ 245

Set 6: 7 reps @ 245

This rep scheme assumes that the initial load is slightly below the 3RM mark. The goal is to submit the heaviest exercise load early when the nervous system is rested. The adaptation occurs through repeated effort at a given intensity. Each subsequent stage is used to create more metabolic stress by reducing the load and increasing the reps. With this system, you have to make sure to use a more extensive warm-up to allow the body to be ready for the heavy load on the first two sets. The weight decrease following each stage should be around 5%. Make sure you stay conservative with the initial load selection so that you can perform the exact repetition called for on each set. Assuming adequate rest periods, a drop-off in reps would signify a starting weight that is too high.

Wave Loading

Waves are my preferred peaking rep schemes. The purpose of the Wave Loading method is to expose the nervous system to different intensities in a contrast fashion. The first exposure to a given set of reps will prepare the body to exert its maximal potential as the lifter progresses through the different waves of intensities. Two waves will work for most trainees while more advanced lifters may benefit from three or four waves. Here are some examples of Wave Loading rep schemes:

7,5,3,7,5,3

6,4,2,6,4,2

3,2,1,3,2,1

This is my favorite Wave Loading protocol for a strength cycle:

5,3,2,5,3,2

Set 1: 5 reps @ 260

Set 2: 3 reps @ 275

Set 3: 2 reps @ 290

Set 4: 5 reps @ 265

Set 5: 3 reps @ 280

Set 6: 2 reps @ 295

This rep scheme assumes that the starting load is slightly below the 5RM mark. The purpose is to create a strength adaptation by progressively increasing the load in each wave with the goal of achieving peak intensity in the final set. The weight is increased by about 5% from set to set, while the increase in load for the second wave should be closer to 2%. Make sure you are conservative with the initial load selection so that you can perform the exact repetitions called for on each set. Assuming adequate rest periods, a drop-off in reps would signify a starting weight that is too high.

Cluster Sets

Clusters are especially useful to break a strength plateau on a lagging exercise. The goal is to use short intra-set rests to allow more reps to be completed at a given intensity. The added volume from a higher average load will affect recovery, for this reason, this method is best suited for intermediate to advanced lifters and should be used sparingly through a training year.

Let’s take a closer look at my two favorite Cluster rep schemes.

First exposure to Cluster training:

5 x (3/1/1/1)

3 reps @ 265, rest 10 seconds

1 rep @ 265, rest 10 seconds

1 rep @ 265, rest 10 seconds

1 rep @ 265, rest 180 seconds

With a 5RM load, the weight stays constant throughout the set, but 6 total reps are completed instead of 5. Use this Cluster protocol for 4 to 5 sets. For best results, when training the lower body, perform Clusters using single station training followed by rest periods emphasizing full recovery.

The second exposure to Cluster training:

5 x (1/1/1/1/1)

1 rep @ 280, rest 10 seconds

1 rep @ 280, rest 10 seconds

1 rep @ 280, rest 10 seconds

1 rep @ 280, rest 10 seconds

1 rep @ 280, rest 240 seconds

With a 3RM load, the weight stays constant throughout the set, but 5 total reps are completed instead of 3. Use this Cluster protocol for 5 to 6 sets. For best results, when training the lower body, perform Clusters using single station training followed by rest periods emphasizing full recovery.

As we just established in this article, there are more to sets and reps than the old 3 x 12. Each rep scheme can have a profound effect on the training outcome of a phase. Are the reps presented in a pattern that will favor a metabolic response? Is the rep scheme better suited for a peaking phase? What is the most efficient rep scheme to break through a lifting plateau? Understanding Rep Schemes will improve long-term results of your training. Constant progress over time is key in strength training. I hope this article provided clarity on when to implement rep schemes and how to optimally execute them.

-SC

https://www.kilostrengthsociety.com/

Written by Stephane Cazeault