Sets and reps are as old as training itself. The repetition is the foundation of every training methodology out there. Without reps, there is no training. However, the rigid structure of sets and reps we default to might limit our potential to progress optimally when it comes to gaining muscle.
There is compelling evidence that training volume (sets x reps x load) is the driving force behind hypertrophy. So important is the influence of training volume that a dose response relationship has been established in literature. The more you do the more you grow. Furthermore, this volume must progress overtime to keep muscle overload in place. You might be thinking, “that’s all well and good Tom, but what does this have to do with traditional sets and reps?” Allow me to explain.
The Trouble with Sets and Reps
Most programs are set-up using rigid set and rep schemes (e.g., 3×3, 5×5, or 10×10). Other times a rep racket is allocated—for example, 3×6-8. These traditional rep schemes can be extremely effective. I have often used them myself. However, there can be a problem when it comes to ensuring training volume increases overtime.
To illustrate this point here is a working example. John starts out using 225 lbs for his 3×6-8. His “progression” is as follows:
- Week 1 – 225 lbs X 8/7/6 = 4,725 lbs
- Week 2 – 225 lbs X 8/8/7 = 5,175 lbs
- Week 3 – 225 lbs X 8/8/8 = 5,400 lbs
- Week 4 – 230 lbs X 8/6/6 = 4,600 lbs
- Week 5 – 230 lbs X 8/7/6 = 4,830 lbs
- Week 6 – 230 lbs X 8/7/7 = 5,060 lbs
- Week 7 – 230 lbs X 8/8/8 = 5,520 lbs
Now, if you just look at the weight on the bar and the reps performed I think you’d agree that this looks like pretty decent progress. The problem is that after peaking in week 3, it then takes John until week 7 to surpass his volume for this lift. That means that he was failing to optimally overload via volume for 4 weeks out of 7—not a great hit rate!
Will his growth have been non-existent in this time? Of course not. Anything within approximately 10% of his best performance probably falls within an overload range—by which I mean a sufficient volume load was lifted to cause the body to adapt somewhat. However, it wasn’t a progressively overloading stimulus so, it was not an optimal stimulus. Growth could have been that bit quicker. Over a 7 week period these differences are negligible. Extend it out over your lifting career and it adds up to a noticeable difference.
The Role of Total Volume Training (TVT)
Recently, I have experimented extremely successfully with using total rep targets rather than specific sets and reps. I call this Total Volume Training (TVT). Consider the following structure and see how it helps John consistently add volume week to week. John starts out using his 8-rep max (225 lbs) and does as many sets as required to hit the total rep target as follows:
- Week 1 – 225 lbs X 20 total reps = 4,500 lbs
- Week 2 – 225 lbs X 22 total reps = 4,950 lbs
- Week 3 – 225 lbs X 24 total reps = 5,400 lbs
- Week 4 – 225 lbs X 26 total reps = 5,850 lbs
- Week 5 – 225 lbs X 28 total reps = 6,300 lbs
- Week 6 – 225 lbs X 30 total reps = 6,750 lbs
- Week 7 – 225 lbs X 32 total reps (John exceeds his capacity to recover and takes a deload)
With this approach, there is a linear increase in training volume. To achieve the total rep target John might well have to do more sets over the phase. In week 1, he might have got 20 total reps in three total sets. To hit the 30 rep threshold in week 6 might have taken him 4 or 5 sets. The key is that volume is constantly increasing. Sure, you can achieve increases in total volume using more traditional set/rep schemes by adding sets. The problem is people often incorrectly apply this approach and fool themselves into believing they are progressing when they are not. They add weight to the bar, but don’t do enough total reps to increase total volume.
Consider this scenario:
- Week 1 – 225 lbs X 8/7/6 = 4,725 lbs
- Week 2 – 225 lbs X 8/8/8 = 5,400 lbs
- Week 3 – 225 lbs X 8/8/8/6 = 6,750 lbs
- Week 4 – 225 lbs X 8/8/8/8 = 7,200 lbs
- Week 5 – 230 lbs X 8/7/6/6 = 6,210 lbs
The key with the TVT structure is that it ensures volume increases every week. It removes any potential for the perception of progress when none is there and it acts as a safety net to ensure you achieve your primary goal—overloading via volume.
As an added bonus, the TVT structure saves you from having to try and calculate your total training volume during a session and compare to last week’s performance. Good luck doing that after a hard set of squats! Instead, you know all you have to do is show up, punch the clock, and hit your allotted rep total at the given weight.
The Lack of Load
For those of you concerned with the lack of increases in load on the bar I say, so what? Hypertrophy is the focus and you will be providing a strong hypertrophy inducing stimulus through increased volume. If you cannot reconcile this fact then, I do have a solution for you to use on the big compound lifts. A good rule of thumb is to aim to get 1-2% stronger each week. Assuming you are strong enough on the big barbell lifts for increases of this magnitude to be feasible (loads of at least 250 lbs allow a 2% increase of 5 lbs), then you can simply keep the rep total the same, but increase load. For example:
- Week 1 – 250 lbs X 20 total reps = 5,000 lbs
- Week 2 – 255 lbs X 20 total reps = 5,100 lbs
- Week 3 – 260 lbs X 20 total reps = 5,200 lbs
To highlight how adding load in this manner is different to how a set and rep structure would play out, consider this example:
John performs 4×3-5 starting at 250 lbs and add 5 lbs per week as above.
- Week 1 – 250 lbs x 5, 5, 5, 5 = 5,000 lbs
- Week 2 – 255 lbs x 5, 5, 5, 4 = 4,845 lbs
- Week 3 – 260 lbs x 5, 5, 4, 3 = 4,420 lbs
Each week his training volumes reduces. The exact opposite of what he is trying to achieve. Now, he could remedy this by adding sets. After all, that is essentially what would happen when using a total rep target, but it is rarely considered in set and rep structures. Even by adding sets there is no guarantee that training volume increases. Here is another example, to showcase how this might play out:
- Week 1 – 250 lbs 4×3-5 – John gets 5, 5, 5, 5 (20 total reps) = 5,000 lbs
- Week 2 – 255 lbs 5×3-5 – John performs x 5, 5, 5, 4, 4 (23 total reps) = 5,865 lbs
- Week 3 – 260 lbs 6×3-5 – John does x 5, 5, 4, 3, 3, 2 (22 total reps) = 5,720 lbs
As you can see, focusing on a sets and reps structure takes your attention away from what matters most when it comes to building size. Instead, pick a strategy that allows you to relentlessly add volume. Over time, this will cause you to grow at the quickest rate possible. Regardless of whether you choose to drive total reps up or keep reps static and increase load, the total training volume will increase. This is what really matters when it comes to hypertrophy and is why TVT is so effective.