Rethinking Traditional Rep Schemes

Dustin Myers

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3 x 10.  5 x 5.

Ay, yes.  The classics.  Chances are that most of you were raised on these basic rep schemes.  They have been around forever, and for myself and many weightlifters these were our introduction to programming.  But just because these basic rep schemes are simple enough for any beginner to understand and utilize, does that mean that they hold no value for the advanced weightlifter?  Any experienced lifter can benefit from their structure and simplicity - it may just be time to rethink how they are utilized.

Let’s start with the 3x10.  Conventional wisdom holds that you pick a weight that you can complete 3 sets of 10 reps with perfect form.  This is a great strategy for beginners, but it’s no wonder that weightlifters soon grow out of it - it doesn’t feel very challenging.  If you can still complete 10 reps on the 3rd set of a given weight then chances are that sets number 1 and 2 were not very difficult.  So how can we adapt this standard bearer to be more beneficial?  Let’s use DB Chest Press as the example.  A normal 3 x 10 may be with 80lb DBs - something you are quite confident you can do for all 3 sets.  Instead approach the sets like this:

Set 1: a “warm up” set slightly lighter than your normal protocol

Set 2: normal weight

Set 3 normal weight +5-10lbs, broken into 2 mindsets or with assistance

So in this case the sets of DB Bench (with a normal 3x10 protocol of 80lb DBs as the example) would be:

Set 1: 75lb DBs x 10

Set 2: 80lb DBs x10

Set 3: 90lb DBs x 7/3

On the 3rd set, let’s say that you fail at 7 reps.  Either have a partner assist you for the final 3, or sit up and rest for 10-20 seconds before completing the final 3 reps of the set on your own.  By utilizing this protocol you will progress faster than using the same weight for all 3 sets.  Once you are able to complete all 10 reps with the final weight, move that weight to the middle set and adjust the 1st and 3rd sets accordingly.

Now lets move on to the granddaddy of them all - 5 sets of 5.  This is probably the most beneficial rep scheme ever created and has the most wide range of applications.  Perhaps because of it’s utilitarian reputation and universal appeal, some advanced lifters are hesitant to keep this trusty tool at their disposal.  Rather than going the traditional route and picking a standard weight (typically 75-80% 1RM) for all 5 sets, here is a better strategy.  Let’s use DB Bench again as the example and this time 100lb DBs as the normal 5x5 weight.

Set 1: 80lb DBs x 5

Set 2: 90lb DBs x 5

Set 3: 100lb DBs x 5

Set 4: 110lb DBs x 5

Set 5: 115lb DBs x 3/2

With this strategy you will basically use the first 2 sets of 5 as “heavy warm ups”.  The 3rd set will be your normal set of 5.  Now because you are used to doing the 100s for 5 sets of 5, you will not be as fatigued as normal by this time in your workout and will move up 5-10lbs for your 4th set.  On the 5th set you will move up again, with the goal of getting at least 3 reps with this heavy weight.  Have a partner assist you to complete the set or take a brief 10-20 second break before finishing the set.

So now you have a new way of looking at these weight room program classics.  Just like hearing an old favorite song in a new setting, this different approach me help you rediscover your appreciation for the reps that helped form the foundation of your weight training career.  I will be the first one to tell you that there is no “perfect” rep scheme.  Heavy singles, drop sets, reverse ladders, rep hold method - I love them all and see value in all of them.  The key is using intensity and giving MAX EFFORT in whichever programming strategy you pick.