What are Sets and Reps? – Why are They Important?

Most of you will already know this, so feel free to skip this paragraph. Other than a few anecdotes you won’t get much out of it. Sets and reps are notions to go by, suggestive guidelines that serve as a relative intensity-measure. When you do any given exercise you have to decide on a number of repetitions (reps). For growth this can be 6-12, or for other purposes even higher, but that’s for later.

The reps are not, however, a mere standard. You cannot just pick any weight and lift it for the designated number of reps. The reps scheme is the decisive factor in deciding the weight. You will need to select a weight that will allow you to get the designated number of reps and not one more.

If you can do more, finish the set and add more weight on the next one. The set we allude to is the number of times you will perform a series of reps. Doing more than one is a necessity, because only when a muscle is totally wasted, recovers almost completely only to be annihilated again, does it know it’ll have to grow under the strain.

So the set-rep scheme is presented with an x, 3×12 meaning 3 times 12 or 3 sets of 12 reps each. Just so you know. How many reps should I perform? The number of repetitions per set is directly dependent on how the muscle reacts.

I hear it all the time, some beginning personal trainer claiming that 8 reps are the best for growth, or Skip Lacour’s dumb-ass remarks about how you should train with 4-6 reps. If you can’t feel the pump in the muscle, can’t feel the burn, then you didn’t stimulate squat. Always aim for a strict movement with a good prolonged contraction.

Source: jefit.com

Feel free to hold the contraction for as long as a two-count if needed. This will lighten the weight no doubt, but that doesn’t let you off the hook. If that means you can do 12-14 reps, do them. The factor for growth here is to decide on the lowest number, 6 or above, that will maximally stimulate all the involved muscle fibers.

This will be different for most exercises. When I train back for example, I get by doing 6-8 reps when doing most rowing movements, but on pull downs or chins, I need 12-15 just to feel the lats work. But it has paid off. By increasing the reps in favor of the feel I have gained two inches on my lats.

My theory behind my instinctive reps approach is that there are basically two types of fiber: fast-twitch and slow-twitch. Granted, you can divide them in oxidative and glycolytic fiber as well, but that isn’t important here. Fast fibers naturally grow easier. The more fast fiber the more genetic potential.

But to make sure you don’t lag behind, slow twitch fiber, also known as endurance fiber, needs to be stimulated properly as well. Because of a high pain threshold these fibers will need more work, often oxidative work. This is why people train legs and calves with higher reps. Since you stand and walk nearly all day long, the legs are full of slow-twitch fiber.

Because of this unique approach to reps and amounts, I have some of the fastest growing quads on the planet. But some other muscles may be lagging as well, and if you can’t feel them working, increase the reps until you do, then you are stimulating maximum amounts of fiber.

I find my chest grows best on this type of scheme, whereas my shoulders and triceps grow out of proportion when doing 6-10 reps. For you this may be entirely different, which is why you should determine your own rep range. But even in one muscle things can differ. I train deadlifts at 6 reps a pop, Rowing exercises 8-10 and Pull downs and chins and such in 12-15 range. Just to give you and idea of how individual muscles can be.

Though feel and instinct is still the best teacher in this matter, not everyone has honed their instincts to that point yet. One of the ways I use to determine whether the balance of a muscle is more fast-twitch than slow, or vice versa, is simply by having them perform 1 max rep as strict as possible, and then go to 80 percent of that weight. The more reps you can squeeze out at 80 percent, the more fast-twitch fiber in that muscle.

Source: menshealth.com

How many sets should I perform? Where reps are dependent on the feel, the sets are dependent on your recuperation. Doing more sets than you can recuperate from is a fast-track to over-training.

Having said that, doing as little as 6 may be advantageous to a zitty 15-year old, eating 3 square meals and staying up late, but to those of us sacrificing late nights and spare time for deep sleep and endless meals, it only makes sense to use these weapons as a part of our arsenal.

And for us there is no way we can handle only 6 sets. For slow-recovering muscles like chest and biceps, I often keep sets around 12-14, but for all the others I go as high as 22 on occasion and if I feel good even 26.

A 4500 calorie diet and 8-10 hours of sleep allows me to do that easily. So start with a low number, feel free to underestimate as you tweak your supplementation and nutrition, but increase the numbers as you increase intake. And then show them what you’ve got when you hit the gym.

One small word of caution: intensity is important. If you cannot maintain focus and concentration for the duration of your workout, don’t do that many sets, simply increase the intensity and cut your workout in half.

Some people, like Mike Mentzer, simply have a shorter attention span or less motivation that doesn’t allow them to train that long with extreme focus. And their body-types respond to low sets. Most people’s won’t. So moderation is probably the wisest. Staying between 8 and 14 is probably good for the average trainer, the serious trainer should go 12-22.

The most important thing is that you use the amount of reps wisely and stimulate as much fiber as possible. There is more than one muscle in a muscle-group and you need to make sure, if you want a full symmetrical body, that you train each one of those muscles on a consistent basis.

Biceps training should consist of a compound exercise and isolation exercises for inner head, outer head and brachialis. Triceps and shoulder training should have one compound movement and three isolation movements, one for each head, and so on. Only a totally developed muscle is a beautiful one, and that is the reason you need to get a decent amount of sets out of your recuperation.

Sets and Reps in a Gym
Source: unsplash.com

The length of a workout is a relative factor, it’s only of secondary importance. Intensity is the true measure. Whether you work out with 3 sets or 22, you have to stay intense. The greatest trainer on earth, Vince Gironda, was the first to preach intensity and he was right.

I believe you can get more out of your training by doing more work, dependent on your possibilities of recovery. It’s a proven way, but only if intensity is the determining factor in every rep of every set.

Lots of people will snub high-set training as ineffective, and it often is. The reason is that people who haven’t taken the time to get used to high sets jump in to this and lose concentration halfway through a workout. That’s a mistake. But the same thing will happen if you lose focus on a shorter workout as well. So take your time to work up your sets and reap the full benefits of more work.

How long should I rest between sets? Attempt to keep the time as short as possible. This is also a measure of intensity. Sometimes I will knock off 22 sets with only 20 seconds rest between sets and I find that to be very effective. Most people will find anything under 45 to be quite strenuous.

Some people can’t even lift the same weight after 2 minutes. I say, take the time you need, but stay warm. If you take longer than 3 minutes, take care to do some flexing and stretching between sets to keep the muscle warm and avoid injury. You have to let the muscle recover 90 percent.

This happens faster than you think, but you don’t realize it because you are out of breath. Bodybuilding requires little or no oxygen, so you are probably already capable of doing another set. I usually tell people one minute as a guideline, but as with everything in ICE, the actual figure is individually determined. So be your own judge if you can, if you find you haven’t developed your instincts enough, experiment with 45 to 90 seconds.

How long should my workouts last? The general rule these days is maximum of 45 minutes. This is of course oversimplifying it. The motive behind the statement is that after that time cortisol secretion will inhibit GH output and limit gains, producing a catabolic state.

But you have to know that the half-life of GH is open to influence. An experienced trainer can avoid a negative GH/cortisol rate for an hour. The factors that keep GH going are simply motivation, anticipation, and such. All these produce amounts of epinephrine, capable of metabolizing more fat for energy, improving glycogen use.

Source: strongandleanaustralia.com.au

Epinephrine is not an overly wishful product because it has a catabolic effect on glycogen storage, but since it improves GH output it forms no danger whilst training. On the contrary. The fact is that if intensity can be remained, so can GH output. The entire HIT theory was built on the scientific proof that 2 times 10 minutes of intense work is better than an hour’s worth of moderate work.

But if you have the concentration to keep that intensity throughout the hour, then your output in the gym will be more rewarding than any HIT techniques. So for a beginning trainer, try 40-45 minutes, for the experienced trainer, depending on the total training sessions per week, 45-75 minutes. I only do 45 , but I have 8 sessions in 5 days so I don’t need to do more. Especially since my level of intensity allows me to knock off 25 sets in 45 minutes.

How often should I train? A muscle grows only when recovering from brutal training. So, on the one hand, we have to implement training that makes most pros look like yesterday’s news and on the other hand we have to allow for adequate recovery.

I used to subscribe to the Arnold Schwarzenegger way of training everything threefold, but I find that using my maximum amounts of sets I can get away and even grow better doing every body-part just once a week. This allows me to train more body parts separately, giving them the attention they deserve. I never shy away from doing two workouts for a weaker body-part, but only for a limited time.

I usually divide my week in 5 workout days and 2 resting days. Those two resting days provide more rest and they allow me to experiment with my nutrition. I lower my protein and increase my carbs to stock energy for the next week, and when I start my week I’m back on high protein.

This way I recover fully. But during those 5 days I will do what I can. In a mass-phase I feel every single body-part deserves to be worked to its fullest and I’ll even split up bi’s and tri’s and quads and hams. And if I add a training for a weak body-part that gets me up to 8 sessions in 5 days if I have to.

I don’t have to tell you that success this way is reliant on my recovery, and I don’t suggest just anyone do it this way. My point is that I find 5 on, two off to be ideal, and other effective ways are 4 on 3 off / 3 on, one off, 2 on, one off and of course 2 on, two off, 2 on, one off.

Either way, The logic here is that the more training days, the more isolative you can train a body-part. Remember to get in at least one day of rest and if you subscribe to super intensity like me, a minimum of two is needed. When I come of a mass-phase I will train with 5 sessions in those same 5 days.

How many exercises do I need? This is another very hard question to answer. As a beginner it’s important to stimulate as much fiber in as little time as possible because you won’t have the concentration and recuperation to pull of long sessions yet. So here you focus on your compound exercises, stimulating as much of the muscle with a single exercise, adding only one, maybe two, more isolative exercises.

But as you mature you’ll find that you need to exercise the different sections of a muscle in an isolative fashion to get the full quality of the muscle to come out. That means next to stimulation you’d need three isolative exercises (one for each head) for shoulders, biceps and triceps (biceps have two heads and the brachialis).

And for the larger muscles like chest and back you’d need to hit the muscle from every angle (upper, lower, outer, inner and thickness). So obviously exercise selection becomes harder and more important with time. It’s only logical that you can’t pull this off on 6-8 sets, so beginners stick to your compounds.

The best way to illustrate what extreme isolation can do for an established physique is to square up Arnold against Mentzer in 1980’s Mr. Olympia. Both came in ripped, both used steroids, both were big (Mentzer perhaps bigger in this instance).

So what made the difference (Apart from the fact that Joe Weider had fixed the contest, but if that was the only reason Mentzer would have finished second and not fifth)? Well Arnold’s muscles were more refined, showed more striation and definition, whereas Mentzer looked bulky and husky, even at this low body-fat percentage. By sticking to compounds and not giving his muscles enough variation or angles he came out with an unfinished physique.

Mike Mentzer His pupil, former Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates, managed to correct the problem. Instead of doing 2 sets twice a week, he did 6-8 sets three to four times a week and rotated his exercises, bypassing Mentzer’s problem. So be selective and efficient in choosing exercises, as long as you hit as much of the muscle as possible, amount doesn’t matter.

Source: thehungryelite.com

So now you have the information to decide on the sets and reps of your exercises. The other important thing now is to select and perfect your exercises and keep a variety of workouts. To teach you this will take 7 or more articles and they will cover the needs of specific muscle groups.

But before we get to that I’d like to help you understand the ways of increasing intensity, and maximize recovery through exercise cycling and the progression of training.

All very important things to know. But for next time I will teach you perhaps the most interesting part, an almost continually updated list of success-factors that I and the many people who have used and tested I.C.E. have listed as most important to reaching your goals. The only part the program you can follow to the letter by the way.