Powering Through Sets
Part 1: The Basics
What do you need to know about sets and reps?
In our previous series, we took an in-depth look at what makes the perfect repetition. We discovered that there are specific rep scales a bodybuilder can use to achieve specific goals. Ultimately, it would be up to the bodybuilder himself to determine which rep scale is most effective for him.
The beauty of bodybuilding is that everything is customizable, right down to what brand of protein bar you consume after a workout. There are no hard and fast rules and you can try anything and everything to get the results you want.
Bodybuilding’s greatest strength – flexibility – is also its greatest weakness.
The high customizability and the virtually “no holds barred” approach adopted by many bodybuilders young and old have made this particular sport somewhat intimidating and at times, frightening to newcomers.
What do you do when there are no rules? You find yourself following the lead of the most vocal individuals and many of these voices in the bodybuilding market aren’t exactly interested in helping people achieve their dreams.
This is why you need to go back to the roots, to the basics of classical bodybuilding.
Without a strong foundation that goes back to the most essential components of exercise, anyone can tell you what to do – and you wouldn’t know if his ideas were sound or not.
The Theories of Sets
We prefer using the word “theories” as the world of bodybuilding is constantly evolving and many of its classical postulates are being revised constantly by current studies.
While it is true that many of the classical foundations of effective bodybuilding remain unchanged today, it is still best to keep an open mind so you can adapt and change if needed.
- Higher Intensity Plus Low Reps vs. Low-Medium Intensity With High Reps – Many people think that HIIT or high intensity interval training is a “new thing” that is set to destroy classical fitness.
It’s actually one of the oldest methods around and professional bodybuilders such as Dorian Yates can attest to its age. When Dorian Yates was relatively young, high intensity training was already the rage in some parts of the bodybuilding community!
What is high intensity training all about?
As the name implies, high intensity training espouses an increased training intensity above all else. In terms of set count, the fewer the sets and reps, the better. When you’re operating at the highest possible intensity you can muster and tolerate, there’s no reason for you to increase your set and rep count.
Dorian Yates was famous for saying that if you can keep hitting a nail after it’s been driven into the wood, you’ll most likely destroy the thing it’s been designed to hold together.
Studies on the effects and general effectiveness of HIIT have been extremely promising. It appears that HIIT not only promotes muscular growth but it also raises the body’s natural metabolism or fat-burning capability twice or thrice its normal level.
The principles of HIIT can be applied to cardio exercises and whole body movements which makes it an excellent companion method for weight loss.
However, the bodybuilding communities around the world are divided when it comes to using it as the foundational method of building mass.
The main problem with this method is that it is extremely challenging to begin with and only the most naturally gifted bodybuilders would have the strength and power to train with the heaviest weights, day in and day out.
As a result, only a small percentage of bodybuilders stay true to the main tenets of high intensity training.
- Classical Overloading System – If Dorian Yates and the other champions of high intensity training all oppose “needless” addition of sets and reps, the opposite camp thinks otherwise.
The classical method of progressively overloading the muscles by adding resistance, sets and reps has been around for almost 80 years now and it appears that regardless of what science has to say, it’s here to stay.
What’s interesting about the classical overloading system is that it seems to be the preference of professional bodybuilders who have natural strength and lifting power – people who seem to be better suited for high intensity training.
When asked why they choose to perform more reps instead of just utilizing the heaviest resistance they can manage, the most common answer is that higher reps is more challenging in the long run than fewer reps at a higher intensity.
Powering Through Sets
Part 2: Pro-Grade Tips
How do you power through sets and get the results you want?
In our previous article, we talked about the two biggest camps in bodybuilding: the high intensity group and the classical group.
The high intensity group espouses the belief that higher resistance with fewer reps and sets is the best way to build mass and strength. The opposing group, on the other hand, teaches us that you can get excellent results too by overloading the muscles and increasing the frequency of the movements.
These two methods are not without risks: the high intensity method is not recommended for people with weak constitutions because it will definitely push your muscles and your whole physical frame to their limits. If you are not naturally strong, high intensity training can make you fatigued and miserable.
The classical method can become exhausting as well because you keep adding sets and reps to your current lineup in order to move forward.
Unless you are focusing closely on your nutrition and your mass gains, you are at risk of losing muscle mass to natural catabolism or natural muscle depletion which occurs as you exercise.
Is there a perfect system?
As you can see, there is no such thing as a perfect bodybuilding system. Even the classical system that was used by Arnold Schwarzenegger to win Mr. Olympia has its own downsides.
In order to determine what works best for you, we recommend that you try different systems and see how each one benefits your body. What worked for Arnold may not be as effective as what worked for Dorian and you may find that your system differs entirely.
Regardless of what system you choose, use our pro-grade tips below to boost your performance:
- Body Type Matters – If you are a tall and lean person, you’re at risk of catabolism after a short period of time. If you perform 20 sets of each exercise you may end up with low body fat and low lean muscle tissue, too! If this is the case, a high intensity approach may be best for you.
- Time Your Recovery Period – It doesn’t make any sense to jump into the next set after 10 seconds of catching your breath. Your body needs more than 10 seconds if you’ve been forcing it to lift heavy weights! The minimum recovery time is 45 seconds but no more than 1 whole minute for “general purpose” workouts.
However, if you’re trying to burn off as much fat as possible in a limited amount of time, your recovery period should be limited to just 20 seconds but the intensity should be controlled, as too much intensity can cause you to flop around in subsequent sets.
- Experiment With Set Types – There are two main types of set systems in bodybuilding. The first one is the straight set where a bodybuilder performs a fixed number of sets and repetitions without modifying the intensity or resistance.
For example, let us say that today was arm day for me and I wanted to perform barbells curls. If I was using straight sets, my target would be something like 150 lbs., 5 x 10 (5 sets of 10 reps).
The second set system is the pyramid set. The pyramid set is often used by people who espouse the high-intensity mode of training. Instead of maintaining the same rep count through the set, you will change the intensity and rep count accordingly.
Going back to my example, before, if I was performing barbell curls and I wanted a pyramid set, my target set and reps would look like this:
Set 1 – 150 lbs. – 10 reps.
Set 2 – 155 lbs. – 9 reps
Set 3 – 160 lbs. – 8 reps
Set 4 – 165 lbs. – 7 reps
Set 5 – 170 lbs. – 6 reps
There is a third set type called the reverse set but it’s quite risky for beginners. The reverse set places the highest possible resistance at the beginning of the set. The set becomes progressively easier as resistance is reduced until the bodybuilder is lifting relatively light weights at the end of the set.
The logic behind the reverse set is that you will have a better chance of being able to lift the heaviest weights at full power if you lift them first. However, this drive for ideal performance can come at the cost of injury. Don’t use reverse sets if you’re barely out of your first year of bodybuilding!