Anthony Ditillo

(3) Rhoades & Wescotf, 1987 (4) Berger in Viel et al., 1984

(7) Anderson & Harring (1977) in Sale & MacDougall (1981)

(8) Kennedy, 1980

Because so many factors affect your strength at any given time, plugging you into a computer-generated program based upon a one-rep max may compromise the quality of the workout. If you're sick, the weights will be too heavy; and if you're feeling great, the weights will be too light, leading to plenty of frustration.

Determine Muscle Fiber Composition

A muscle with a high percentage of slow-twitch fibers responds best to higher reps. The soleus contains predominantly slow-twitch fibers; therefore, repetitions in the 15-25 range may be needed to give sufficient time under tension for these fibers to hypertrophy. In contrast, the gastrocnemius contains predominantly fast-twitch fibers and responds best to lower reps.

One observation I've had is that sprinters and Olympic weightlifters often

Olympia 1981

A. A study of strength contrasts: Three-time Gold medal weightlifting champion Nairn Suleymanoglu admires the biceps of Mr. Universe RayMentzer, who has an entirely different perception of heavy duty training.

have much better development of the hamstrings than bodybuilders. This is because the hamstrings are primarily composed of fast-twitch fibers; and to access these fibers, you must train them at a high intensity level. If a bodybuilder is making exceptional progress on his or her hamstrings using more than eight reps for this muscle group, I would attribute such growth more to pharmacological reasons.

Arthur Jones claims you can determine muscle fiber type by examining how many times you can lift a sub-maxi-mal weight. This is partially true. If two people have a 1RM for the Barbell Curl of 100 lbs, the person who curls 80 lbs only 5 times has more fast-twitch fibers than the person who can curl the same weight 10 times. Compared to the usual method of determining fiber type that involves taking painful muscle biopsies, Jones' test is extremely convenient for untrained individuals. However, you must understand that you can bias this relationship by making the body more neurologically efficient (with relative strength training methods) or less neurologically efficient (with aerobic work).

A. A study of strength contrasts: Three-time Gold medal weightlifting champion Nairn Suleymanoglu admires the biceps of Mr. Universe RayMentzer, who has an entirely different perception of heavy duty training.

Consider Exercise Complexify

If an exercise involves multiple joints in a complex skill, such as the Olympic lifts, excessive reps will produce undesirable technical and motor-learning changes. When performing more than six reps in the power clean, for example, the relatively small rhomboid muscles would tire out first, causing a change in lifting technique. 1 saw an article by a football strength coach who recommended sets of up to 30 reps in the power clean. Since his team won a national championship, I concluded that a scientifically sound weight training program is only one variable responsible for success in collegiate football.

With the increased contributions of science to training methodology, the subject of selecting the appropriate number of reps for your workouts has become very confusing. And because science has not yet provided all the answers, we will continue to see much variation in training methods. Of course, tackling the subject of repetitions is only part of the solution. You also need to define and select the proper number of sets.

The Science of Sets

Let's start with a simple definition: a set is a group of consecutive reps. Going a step further, an extended rest period or a change of exercises signals the completion of a set. This means one superset, two exercises for different muscle groups performed in sequence, equals two sets. One giant set, three exercises for the same muscle group performed in sequence, equals three sets. Descending sets, in which virtually no rest time is taken between weight changes, equals just one set. Although some individuals endorse one-set training, when you apply the previous definitions, you often ,find their workouts contain extended sets. With extended ,'sets, the total time the muscle is under tension contributes to the total volume that elicits a hypertrophy response.

Variables Influencing Set Selection: A Top-lO List

Anthony Ditillo

A In addition to Coach Poliquin's revolutionary workout programs for strength and mass, he is highly acclaimed for his success at rehabilitating injuries. He's shown here stretching the hip stabilizers of Gary Roberts, one of his athletes.

The overload principle suggests that stronger athletes need more sets, and real-life examples prove multiple-set systems produce faster and greater gains in muscle mass, strength and power. But there are many variables to consider in determining how many sets you should perform in a workout. Here are ten of them:

1. Number of reps selected

Most strength coaches believe there is a minimum amount of time the muscles must be stimulated for maximum size and strength gains. Consequently, when training with low reps, you must perform more sets to attain the optimal volume for strength development. This is illustrated in Figure 1.

2. Number of exercises per training session

The more exercises you perform, the fewer sets you need to achieve an optimal training effect for each exercise. If you add exercises to your workout without reducing the average number of sets per exercise, you would exceed the optimal time period to complete a workout.

Figure 1: Inverse relationship between reps and sets.

Sets High Low

A In addition to Coach Poliquin's revolutionary workout programs for strength and mass, he is highly acclaimed for his success at rehabilitating injuries. He's shown here stretching the hip stabilizers of Gary Roberts, one of his athletes.

3. Training level

One or two sets per exercise are usually enough for beginners because their training level is low. But when we talk about training level, we don't necessarily mean chronological age; a 17-year-old could be considered advanced, and a 50-year-old could be considered a beginner.

4. Gender

At any given percentage of their maximum for one rep (1RM), a woman will perform more reps than a man. Take the arm curl, for example. At 70% of their 1RM, a woman should be able to perform 17 reps, while a man should only be able to complete 12. Also, because there is an inverse relationship between sets and reps, this difference in neurological efficiency means women should do fewer sets at a given intensity.

5. Nutritional status

With the availability of creatine monohydrate supplements, drug-free athletes can increase their volume of high-quality sets almost as much as those who use drugs that stimulate creatine storage, such as oxandrolone and methandrostenolone.

Furthermore, supplements that assist glycogen loading, such as chromium and vanadyl sulfate, may match some of the gains associated with glycogen-synthetase enzyme stimulation, such as the results from drugs such as oxymethonolone and testosterone suspension.

6. Muscle size

The number of sets performed should be inversely proportionate to the size of the muscle mass trained. Small muscle groups recover more quickly than large muscle groups and can therefore handle more sets. Thus, you could perform more sets for the biceps than you could for the quadriceps.

7. Principle of individualization

Bodybuilders and strength athletes have reached high levels of performance using a variety of training philosophies. An overview of the present scientific literature reveals a similar diversity of programs leading to increased gains. Because everyone has a unique response to a given program, the number of sets should be individualized. Rick Well, a world record holder in the bench press, uses low sets in his training. Early 50s world weightlifting champion Doug Hepburn used high sets to achieve his own record performances.

8. Principle of quality over quantity

Even when you allow sufficient rest intervals to replenish the phospha-gens, after a few sets the muscles will fatigue to the point where increasingly fewer reps can be performed before failure. This is what I call the critical drop-off point. The critical drop-off point occurs when you reach a 5-7% drop in performance, and it is at this time you should move to another exercise or bodypart. You'll know you've hit the critical drop-off point when you must reduce the amount of weight you're lifting to maintain the selected rep range or when you experience a drop of two to three reps from one set to the next.

The basic premise of the critical drop-off point, which I learned from discussions with Canadian sprint coach Charlie Francis, is "never increase the

"One or two sets per exercise are usually enough for beginners because their training level is low."

Lou Ferrigno Arnold
A Lou Ferrigno and Arnold Schwarzenegger are credited with increasing public awareness of the sport of bodybuilding. Coach Poliquin is recognized for creating on awareness of the value of hypertrophy methods for improved athletic performance amongst coaches.

quantity of stimulus at the expense of quality." It is pointless to perform sets in which the resistance is reduced so much that you don't train the appropriate motor units and don't create sufficient tension on the muscles to elicit gains. These additional "garbage sets" would also impede recovery by putting excessive strain on the nervous system and energy stores.

9. Hormonal output and anabolic state

To maintain the quality of the training stimulus, you should not perform more than 30-36 sets per workout. I've seen better results when the total number of sets is kept between 20-25. Bulgarian weightlifting coach Angle Spassov and US weightlifting coach Dragomir Cioroslan believe training sessions should not last over one hour, and 45 minutes would be even better. The bodybuilders I train respond best to brief workouts. Former Mr. Universe Andre Charette made his greatest progress on two 40-minute workouts per day, whereas Mike Payette made his best gains training only once a day for about 52 minutes per workout.

10. Muscle composition Muscles that are inherently fast-

twitch respond best to more sets. Muscles that are inherently slow-twitch respond best to fewer sets. Thus, you can perform more sets for the hamstrings (fast twitch) than for the soleus (slow twitch). Also, muscles not normally subjected to intense loading in daily activities (such as the neck flexors) respond better to fewer sets.

Prescriptions for Increasing Muscle Mass and

Relative Strength

One of the most controversial topics in resistance training is the optimal number of sets you need to increase muscle mass. There are the low-set proponents like Dorian Yates and the Mentzer brothers and the high-set proponents like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Anthony Ditillo. Both camps are right! What counts is the proportion of high-set and low-set work through a sound periodized approach to training. However, generaliza

TABLE 3: Loading parameters for hypertrophy

tions can be made. Table 3 contains set-rep prescriptions for increasing muscle mass.

Strength coaches often encounter the difficult problem of designing training programs to improve an athlete's strength without significantly increasing lean body mass. The type of strength they want is called relative strength.

Relative strength is especially important in sports that involve weight classes, such as boxing, wrestling and weightlifting. Athletes in these sports must be as strong as possible at the lightest bodyweight possible. It is also important to athletes who require strength without excessive muscle mass, like those in skiing, cycling, figure skating, gymnastics and bobsledding. Despite being relatively light, the skiers and bobsledders I coach often have leg strength comparable to elite weightlifters and bodybuilders. Felix Belzcyk and Cary Mullen are both World Cup medalists. Belzcyk weighs 191 lbs and Mullen weighs 200 lbs, and both have front squatted 352 for 3 reps. Ian Danney of the Canadian bobsled team has front squatted 451 lbs, and he weighs 180 lbs. (And we're talking about full squats, as in "leave a stain on the platform.")

The neuromuscular basis of relative strength training involves performing brief but maximal voluntary contractions to improve the neural drive to the muscles. The great voluntary effort associated with such training recruits the highest threshold motor units so as to make use of their greater strength and rate of force




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