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Programming Your Training (Sets & Reps)

Updated: Oct 7, 2018

Video at the bottom for complete breakdown!

Any old Tim, Bob or Joe can throw some exercises together and make someone tired. Unfortunately, for a significant number of the general population who haven’t been educated at all in how to train for performance and get optimal results from the gym, they believe that unless they are walking out from the gym with their legs wobbling, t-shirt a different colour from the amount of sweat they have accumulated and body sore for the next 3 days that they haven't had a good session. Whilst, if we are training to develop our stamina and endurance these could be signs we have had a good session, they could also be signs that:

  1. We haven’t trained in a while

  2. It’s very hot inside the gym and we haven't drunk enough water

  3. We haven’t trained in a while

In no shape or form am I trying to disregards the average gym goer or young athlete for not understanding what constitutes a good session and how to program for different goals, However, I do believe that all good coaches should be educating their students (students can be whatever age, we are all constantly learning) that just because you are physically knackered doesn't mean you have had the best session! Obviously it is always a good sign that we have gone to the gym and given our maximal effort in what has been assigned to us for the workout, but running around non-stop and doing endless repetitions isn't necessarily going to help us towards our end goal, particularly if we are an athlete trying to either develop explosive power or maximal strength.

When building a training program there are a number of key criteria that will be on the top of each column, and they include:

  • Sets

  • Reps

  • Load

  • Tempo

  • Rest

Obviously the exercise selection is also going to play a crucial role within our training but I’ll save that for another post. in order to determine the numbers for our key criteria above, first we need to have a clear vision of what our goal is for the training session as this will greatly influence what we program in. Each individual criteria above will not only have an impact on the outcome of the session directly, but will also impact it indirectly by having a knock on effect on the other criteria. For example, if I am training for power but I am only giving myself a short rest period <2 minutes then it is unlikely I will be able to achieve my desired optimal tempo as my ATP/PC energy system (responsible for short but maximum intensity efforts) will not have had time to recover.

Whilst our training in the gym can be focused on developing numerous health and skill related components of fitness, generally when lifting weights I can categorise people into 5 categories.

  1. Learning a New Movement

This could be someone who has been lifting in the gym for a long time, or someone who is completely new to the weights room. Either way the end goal here is to teach the athlete a new motor pattern that is going to help them develop their athletic competency. As with learning any new skill or movement it takes time and repetition for our body, but more importantly our brain to build it into its repertoire of muscle memory. Therefore, the focus here should never be to exert the learner with physical load (particularly in compound movements that could cause injury), but instead focus on completing more repetitions of the movement in a controlled tempo. The rest period doesn't need to be as long as training for strength or power, but can be used effectively to give the learner cues, or if they are completing the movement by themselves, to reflect on the kinaesthetic of the movement (how it felt).

For somebody learning a new movement in the gym without a coach or trainer, video analysis can be a great tool for watching back to see how the movement looked, which can then be compared to how it felt. The end goal here is to get ‘good feeling’ matched to ‘good looking’ - and no I am not talking about the search for a new partner on a Friday night!

2. Muscular Endurance

For those training to develop muscular endurance, we are looking to build upon the tolerance of our peripheral nervous system in delaying fatigue. Muscular endurance is the ability of a muscle or group of muscles to sustain repeated contractions against a resistance for an extended period of time. Muscular endurance is required in numerous sports, not just long-distance continuous sports such as: swimming, running, cycling and rowing; but also sports such as rugby, football, basketball etc. If we are powerful but have no muscular endurance we aren't going to be much use in sports that require us to produce that power over a prolonged period.

Peripheral fatigue usually occurs for a number of reasons, and they can be found in this post here:

However, if we are training for muscular endurance, there is no point us only doing a couple of reps with a high load, as this will not replicate the conditions we are training for. Although having a higher level of overall strength will benefit our muscular endurance, if we don't specifically target our muscular endurance by working our muscles to fatigue then this won't be of much use. Take powerlifters for example, they are extremely strong, but if you asked them to produce a sustained effort over long durations its likely they wouldn't be very successful. Thus, training for muscular endurance we want to use lower weights (50% or less of our maximum, usually lower) to complete higher rep ranges (15+). If we are training for team, combat or continuous sports we will most likely want to use full body movements that will replicate that of competition, some good examples would be:

  • Squats

  • Deadlifts

  • Push Ups

  • Rows

  • Crawling Variations

  • Carries

We should be able to produce the movement for at least 20 seconds plus without technique failing due to lack of strength.

3. Muscular Hypertrophy

Muscular hypertrophy refers to an increase in muscle size, it is important to note that while there is a positive relationship between size and strength, training for pure strength won't necessarily be the best way to increase muscle size. An example of this is bodybuilders vs Olympic Weightlifters; whilst Olympic Weightlifters can generally lift a lot more weight, bodybuilders are bigger in muscular proportion There are a number of reasons why bodybuilders are bigger than powerlifters but can't lift the same amount of weight, mostly it comes down to training methodology. What a lot of people who haven't studied muscle anatomy and physiology forget is that a significant proportion of increases in strength come through development in the Central Nervous System, not simply an increase in muscle cross-sectional area. Developments to the CNS that help us improve our strength include:

  • Recruitment of Motor Units

  • Rate Code Firing

So if we are looking to focus on developing muscular size over strength we instead want to focus on factors such as:

  • Tempo: How quickly the weight is being moved. For developments in muscular size we want to focus on time under tension as this will cause greater tears in the muscle fiber

  • Type of Contraction: A greater focus should be put on eccentric contraction as again this has been shown to cause greater micro-tears to the muscle fiber.

  • Volume: We want a greater amount of volume (higher reps & sets) with less rest time as this leads to increased blood flow to the muscle. Studies show that cellular swelling causes both an increase in protein synthesis and a decrease in protein breakdown.

4. Strength

Muscular strength refers to one's ability to exert force of a single maximal effort. When we are training for maximal strength there is one thing in mind - lifting heavy! You will no doubt have heard the saying ‘to get stronger we must go heavy’. Therefore, when you see people doing circuit training with little rest and high repetitions, there is no way that they can be training for strength. Training for maximal strength requires an enormous effort not only from the peripheral system (muscle, joints etc) but also from the Central Nervous System (brain and spinal cord). To lift at our maximum we require total synchronisation of the mind and body to get every single muscle fiber in our body contracting at once. Take powerlifters as an example again, if you watch a show and see how psyched up the competitors get themselves for one lift, and then it is all or nothing. They definitely won't be trying to rep out. For those of you with an older brother, you might compare this to wrestling and when you save all your momentum for that ‘all or nothing’ moment.

When training for strength we require:

  • Low repetitions

  • Middle to high sets in order to get enough overall volume

  • Long Rest periods to allow our ATP/PC energy system to recover

5. Power

When you think of power, you probably think about people like Usain Bolt, Ronaldo, Lebron James. These are all supreme athletic specimens who have demonstrated their ability to produce power time and again. Power is simply our ‘ability to apply maximal force in as short a time as possible, thus making it the balance between speed and strength. Some great examples of power sports include track and field events such as: 100m, high jump, long jump and javelin; combat sports such as: MMA and boxing; team sports such as: American football, Rugby and Basketball.

If we are training to develop our power output one thing is crucial: tempo! If we want to be explosive there is absolutely no point in doing things slowly. Even if we have a heavy load on our back in the squat and the bar might not be moving quickly, we still want to be trying to exert the force as fast as possible. If we really are testing our power capabilities then again we must give ourselves adequate rest time. Take for example that time you saw your bus coming and had to test your cheetah speed by running it down with every ounce of energy you had, whether you made the bus or not, one thing is for certain - you were blowing out your ass! If you were then asked to complete that sprint again straight after, the probability is very low that you would be able to run at anywhere near the same speed!

So applying this principle to the weights room, when we train for power it must be done maximally, with long rest periods to ensure that each rep and set we complete is done at or above 95% intensity. So to break it down when training for power we require:

  • Low reps (max power will not be maintained much after 10s of work)

  • Medium Sets (this will depend on the tolerance of the athlete and their CNS)

  • High Tempo (Force applied explosively)

  • Long Rest (To allow each set to be completed at a high tempo)

I hope that this article was useful in helping you determine how you should be programming your training regimen. Always remember that you should have an end goal for your training and whilst your focus may change from year to year, or even session to session depending on the athlete and sport, it is important to understand why you are doing things; this will in turn increase both motivation and productivity of your training!

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