The choice of deciding what type of routine you will be following in your attempt at increasing physical strength is by no means an easy matter. One of the principle problems connected with this decision, which sooner or later you will have to face, is how to decide just how much, and what types of movements you should include in your workouts. This is a fundamental problem of barbell training. No matter whether you are a rank beginner or an advanced man seeking the ultimate in strength and development, the number of sets and repetitions you use or will be using in your training will be a source of aggravation and frustration at times.
The source of such confusion lies within the fact that we are all different. Some men will respond to high sets while others, whose temperament is different, would find such training tiring and boring. For them, low sets and medium repetitions might be the answer. Usually, the higher the number of sets, the lower the repetition scheme. The opposite is also quite true. The lower the number of sets, the higher the rep scheme (within reason), so that the end result in both situations is a fully activated muscle group.
Some lifters will find the answer near the beginning of their training lives, and for them the way is straight and clear. Others, myself included, will have to search on and on in a continuous struggle in order to obtain a small fraction of the gains these "naturals" possess. There are just too many differences in physical makeup or us to come to any concrete conclusions as to how many sets and repetitions will guarantee results. This problem is simply too complex for us to come up with any simple, concrete answer which would be suitable for everyone. Sad as it may seem, while this ability to predict what will definitely work for everyone would make things quite easier to handle, I'm not sure if we would truly like the outcome. For this would take the responsibility and hence the freedom away from the individual to experiment with his body for a particular physical aim.
The human right to decipher, choose, seek out and finally win or lose, but do so with human dignity would be a thing of the past, were we to follow "computerized" training routines. More than likely , most of us would become so bored and tired of the same training routine or theory that, after a given length of time, we would more than likely begin to go stale and the gains would not continue to come forth, no matter what we did! So, it would seem to be a blessing in disguise, this constant need to choose and experiment on how many sets and repetitions would be best for us at any given time period in our training. In this manner, we would be capable of having a more interesting and well rounded training schedule, not to mention the storehouse of information for others, as to what worked or did not work for us during out intensive years of training in this wonderful sport.
The Author in the mid-1990s
However, it should be made clear to you here and now that there are certain parameters of choice as to what to choose and how to go about choosing the proper set and repetition scheme. The sensible approach would be to use our past experiences as to what worked for us in the past as well as the experiences of those who have trained with us and the men we have read about with whom we have some physical affinity.
YOU are your best and most trustworthy trainer! Only you know what feels right for you and what doesn't. No matter what I or anyone else tries to tell you, ultimately the final choice is yours as to just what you should experiment with and what to discard. I also realize that you are not expert enough in the field not to feel intimidated by the weight of such decision making, so you will have to look elsewhere in order to find the varied opinions and ideas of other trainers and trainees, so that a rational choice from all incoming material will be at your disposal. And, for many of us, the only contact we have with what is going on is either at the lifting meets and contests, or by subscribing and reading and re-reading the various magazines and books published. Yer internet, eh. Changes. Some good, some bad, some grand, some bland.
You should take advantage of the availability of these sources of information and learn to decipher your way through the advertising and biased statements until you are able to get to the meat of the matter and also, you should learn to concentrate on just what the writer of lifter is saying to you within the confines of his training article. This is the key. Instead of glancing quickly and simply scanning through, read slowly and carefully before jumping to any conclusion or decision.
I myself have had to change training conceptions during the past decade. Years ago, I found through personal experimentation with various training methods that I progress well in developing size and physical strength with four basic training periods per week.
I would perform one pressing movement, one pulling movement, and one squatting movement per workout. I did not perform the same movements two days in a row, however. An example of the kind of training I was doing during those years would be the following:
Full Squat | Bentover Row | Bench Press
Seated Press | Barbell or Dumbbell Curl | Half Squat in Rack
Floor Press | Bentover Row | Deadlift
Press Behind Neck | Deadlift from Knee Height | Power Clean
This was basically the way I trained and gained in those days. My set and repetition schedule was as follows:
1 set of 10 reps with 50% of my 1-rep limit
3 x 3 with 70%
On my heavy day - 90% of 1RM x 5 singles
On my lighter day - stay at 70% and force out 5-6 more sets of 3
My final two sets would be with around 60% of 1RM for 2 sets to failure.
At that time in my training such a routine proved to be very successful in developing additional size and strength. However . . .
Just because it worked well for me does not mean that if you copy it, just as I outlined for you, that you will gain at the same rate as I did, or that you will see decent results.
Possibly the heavy single attempts would not be pleasing to you. Many guys do not have the drive to thrive on heavy single training for any length of time.
For me, it worked.
For you, it might not.
But you should not let that stop you from pursuing a schedule in order to get to know just what helps you and what doesn't. We learn from our mistakes in this game.
We must take into consideration, at this point, that as involved as the various training systems are, there are basic truths which can help us along in choosing the right path. For one thing, we know that strength is our body's way of compensating for an overload of work. By that I mean that if we overload our muscles with heavy, intense work, out bodies will compensate for this by developing greater strength.
I realize that some trainers will prescribe both intense AND voluminous training routines to their students and I know this is the way for the advanced man to go in his workout regime, should he be interested in developing himself to the maximum.
However, pure, unadulterated strength is a combination of intense nerve fiber stimulation and the capacity for the body to overcome stress. So I would recommend more intense work in your training in comparison to a great training load.
As a fellow advances to beyond the intermediate stage, he may have to initiate both an intense routine as well as a routine which is comprised of many sets of low repetitions, and such a training regimen would be very taxing and time consuming, yet for the most part it would be the only way to succeed.
Many, many lifters confuse bulk training with power training. It is true that an overall bulking routine, by its very nature, will also add to your bodyweight, and while this will not cause many of you problems, due to being underweight of "bulk fanatics" (myself included here) at heart, it is not necessarily a desirable situation for the competing lifter to get into unless he has his heart set on becoming a super-heavyweight. True strength training will concentrate on developing strength and somewhat larger muscular development, but strength will be paramount. For strength you need sense, not bloated muscle tissue.
Many bodybuilders have this bloated look and for their purposes this the way to go in order to develop larger and larger muscles before cutting up. But for the seeker of greater physical strength without adding bodyweight, dense, capable muscle wins out every time. This is why I stated earlier that more INTENSE work is necessary than VOLUME work for the achievement of the goals listed here.
Strength requires intense effort,
contrary to muscle growth
which requires both intense effort AND voluminous workload.
Many of you fellows are following routines which are supposed to be power routines and when I look them over it becomes quite clear to me that nothing could be further from the truth. It seems that almost everyone equates bulk with power (myself included). This is not true in all cases and the records in the lower weight classes are made my "unbulky" men who are incredibly strong. You can be sure that these men know the difference between bulk routines and strength routines.
One of the most accepted general strength routines used today is the "5 x 5 routine".
To me, such a strength routine is close to a complete waste of time.
Because it is neither hard enough nor heavy enough to do you much good. What I see you doing is taking a warmup and then doing 5 sets of 5 repetitions with the same weight, often for workout after workout. Or, you will begin the first set of 5 with a light weight. Jump the poundage and do 5 more reps. Jump it again and do 5 more reps. Jump the third time and do 5 more reps, and finally do one more jump and perform 5 reps, and that's it.
Now I ask you, if you could get 5 x 5 with the same weight as in case number one, isn't it logical to assume that with real effort you could manage 1 or 2 sets of maybe 8 repetitions? And if this is so, then how much actual intense work did you do by performing 5 x 5 with this weight? The answer should be obvious . . . you did very little work at all!
In case number two, it's obvious that only on set number 5 did you do any real work. Yet you stop here instead of going on, when you're finally warmed up and the body says "let's go!" What sense does this make? Yet, many of you refuse to think and to have the courage to change your training concepts because you are afraid to admit that such training will necessarily be long and hard and at times quite uncomfortable.
Yet you moan and groan when the gains do not come your way and you have nothing to show for your efforts but a lot of wasted time and a lot of heartache. This is one of the reasons I write articles, to try and give you the real story as to why you do not gain the way others do. My aim is to give you a realistic look at yourself and at this sport or ours and to enable you to come to some intelligent decision as to how to go about getting where you want to go, by offering you tried and proven in the gym, effective training theories and schedules.
In order for you to gain rapidly in the field of strength development you are going to have to train the way out past and present champions train. I would never ask a man who has never squatted with weight to advise me as to how to improve my squat. Neither should you. There is a great deal of information out there which has already been deciphered for you. All you have to do is have the self-determination to seek out that which seem the right way for you to go, and to experiment until you hit upon the proper set and repetition scheme to use.
I can't decide this for you. Only you can decide the way for you to go. In order for you to as quickly as you can, your entire creative energy is going to have to revolve around the right path to follow. If you have a favorite lifter and he is in your weight class or around your bodyweight and of a similar structure, try his routines. See how you react to his all around exercise program and diet preferences. Find out if you can recuperate on his schedule. Determine if you will have to cut back on his training or alter his diet to meet your own abilities and requirements. See if his exercise movements cause you an inordinate amount of discomfort. There is no right way for you.
Just be patient and have the ability and courage to grow and change along the way, because without change there can be no real growth over time.
You should also bear in mind that for some people the basic rules of training just do not seem to hold water. While most guys respond to heavy weight, low repetitions and high sets for strength development, you may find that heavy singles done for many, many attempts would be best for you. /some may prefer the isometronic system in conjunction with full barbell moves, while others prefer partials done in the power rack and very little practice on the actual competition lifts. I know of one man who did very little actual training in general and yet made fantastic progress (for a time) using the isometronic system in a power rack.
Yet the strongest man I have ever met (pound for pound) believes that power rack work is a waste of time. Who is right? THEY BOTH ARE!