Before I knew a lick about strength and conditioning, I thought sets, reps, and the specific exercise I was doing was the magic concoction to the “gain train.” I would go into the rec center at Ball State and if I didn’t feel like I was performing the perfect set and rep scheme I would feel like I completely wasted my time. I would go back and forth in my head about what was best and would look up programs on Bodybuilding.com to find the magic program. I think the unnecessary stress I put myself through debating which set and rep schemes were the best, probably had a more detrimental impact on my progress than if I were to just go into the gym and work really hard at something random.
Anyways, I am here now and think I know quite a bit more about training than I did in those days. In fact, I cringe when I think about my thought process back then.
Let’s look at what sets, and reps really are. Sets and reps are just a measure of your training volume. It is a measure of the stress that you intentionally give your body in the form of training to elicit certain adaptations. The sets and reps aren’t the important part. The important part is the stress or training load that you are implying.
Sets and reps are important because it is such an easy way to measure and continue to measure your training volume. It has been so useful that we’ve been using set and rep schemes for decades and still use them now.
The real variable that matters is stress. We actively seek to apply more stress so that our clients can adapt and start to make progress in the direction they want to go. Sets and reps are just a way to measure that.
At the end of the day, it isn’t sets and reps that matter so much as it is the training stress that we are applying. We have to make sure we are applying the appropriate amounts at the right time and that we are progressively increasing the dose. You can have 3 sets of 10 on something for 4 weeks straight, but if you aren’t increasing the weight you are using, then you are a lot less likely to make gainZ with a capital “Z.”
For most of the people that we train this is the key factor to remember. Gradual and progressively applied stress over time. For strength athletes or individuals that are super well trained (people that are more resilient to stress), you can probably get away with applying stress in a more abrupt way.
Make sure that you are using sets and reps in the appropriate way. The scheme doesn’t matter as much as if you know your training load is gradually progressing. The principle of progressive overload has been used forever because we know that it works. Just make sure you are actually measuring it.