Fitness enthusiasts are continually on a quest to find the best set and rep schemes for building strength and muscle.
And I get it.
As a gym junkie, fitness enthusiast, and fitness coach myself...I’m no different. I’m always searching for the holy grail and THE best methods to unlock more progress.
But here’s the thing: there is no one...or two...or three...best set and rep schemes for building strength and muscle.
A lot of stuff can and will work if it’s practical, evidenced-based, and you put in the work: you have to bring the intensity and focus on progressive overload.
So, while there are no BEST set and rep schemes, over the last 25 years in the fitness game, I’ve come across and used the following 9 schemes over and over again.
I’m still getting stronger in my 40’s and all of the best set and rep schemes I’ll outline below are time-tested. I-along with many other top strength coaches and personal trainers-have successfully used these over and over again both personally and with CLIENTS. I can vouch for all of these.
So let’s get into some of the best set and rep schemes-my personal favorites-for building strength and muscle.
A Little Primer
Regardless of your training goals or your training “split” (full body, upper/lower, push/pull, body part), I feel everyone needs to continually try to get stronger on the “big basic” multiple joint exercises: squat variations, deadlift variations, chin-up and pull-up variations, rowing variations, bench pressing variations, and overhead pressing variations.
The activity is called STRENGTH training for a reason: people who go into the gym and don’t try to systematically get stronger are not being true to the activity and are not reaping the full rewards of the activity.
Taking things a step further, I also strongly feel you should begin each training session with one “big basic” exercise and utilize a progressive set, rep, and loading protocol which is conducive to building max strength. There is something about focusing on one single exercise to start your workout, giving it your all, and allowing it to “set the tone” for the entire training session.
So with the above being said, I want to present 9 of the best set and rep schemes to build max strength and muscle in the 6 movement categories I mentioned above (squats, deadlifts, chin/pull-ups, rows, bench presses and overhead presses).
All of the protocols (except for #3) I outline below are based on percentages of estimated 1 repetition maximum (1RM) strength or various repetition maximums (RM’s).
To help you out, here is a little list you can use interchangeably to help you choose the appropriate loads and repetitions for each protocol:
2 RM 97%
3 RM 94%
4 RM 90%
5 RM 85%
6 RM 82%
7 RM 80%
8 RM 78%
9 RM 75%
Before I go any further or get a bunch of emails and comments from the internet fitness police, all of the above are ESTIMATES and are NOT 100% accurate.
Your current strength levels (a weaker person will be able to perform more reps with certain percentages of 1 rep max), your “training age” (how many years you’ve been consistently training hard), and the specific exercise(s) can all throw off the above percentages and corresponding repetition maximums. What I presented above is very general and is not meant to be the “holy grail”. I simply presented it to get you started and allow you to implement a progressive plan. Feel free to tweak things to suit your individual needs.
Once again, the protocols outlined in this article are meant to be used on the FIRST exercise in a training session…BY ITSELF. Do NOT superset, tri-set, etc. this “big basic” exercise with other exercises. You want to have complete rest between sets. If you don’t like sitting around between sets, you can do a “filler” exercise (low level mobility drill, activation drill or a stretch) between sets.
For all of the protocols I’ve outlined below, I’d suggest 2–4 minutes of rest between sets. For the first 3 protocols I’ll discuss, 2–3 minutes between sets is fine. For some of the more advanced protocols (protocols 4–8), 3–4 minutes is advised. Got it?
Now that we have all that out of the way, let’s take a look at some of my favorite set and rep schemes for building freakish strength (and muscle). I’ve listed these from least advanced to most advanced, so there is something for everyone.
1. The One Half + 1 Protocol
While I’m not a very original guy and incorporate a lot of methods from other coaches and trainers, I will take credit for coming up with this protocol. It’s really easy to implement:
Choose any repetition maximum (RM) you like from the list presented earlier
Cut that # in half
Add 1 rep
Perform 4–5 sets of this #
Rest 2–3 minutes between sets
For a practical example, let’s say your current 8 RM in the bench press is 225 lbs. You’d set up the one half + 1 protocol like this:
One half of 8 is 4 reps
Add 1…5 reps
Perform 4–5 sets of 5 reps at 225 lbs. resting 2–3 minutes between sets
As long as you get at least 5 reps on your last set, you are allowed to progress the load the next workout (.5–1 percent is what I’d advise). If you do not get at least 5 reps on your last set, you should stay at the current weight (in this case 225) until you do complete 5 reps on the last set.
Again, you can use this protocol for any repetition maximum you’d like, but, in my experience, it works best if you don’t go any lower than a 4 RM (in this case you’d be doing 4–5 sets of 3 which is pretty taxing). Also, I’d say this protocol is best suited for high beginner to intermediate trainees who are transitioning from performing higher reps using lighter loads or who have used a HIT style 1 set to failure approach. With this being said, I sill think a high intermediate to advanced trainee can benefit from this protocol at certain times of the year.
2. The “Husker Power”Protocol
When I was in high school, our head strength coach utilized this protocol with me on the squat and bench press. I was told that former Nebraska strength coach Body Epley used this with the football program (I don’t know if this is true but I digress). This is another super easy to implement protocol:
Set 1: 5 reps @ 65% of 1RM
Set 2: 5 reps @ 70% of 1RM
Set 3: 5 reps @ 75% of 1RM
Set 4: 5 reps @ 80% of 1 RM
An additional back off set at 65% can be performed after the 4th set in order to get in more volume and take advantage of the Post Activation Potential (PAP).
If you look back at the 1RM/RM list I presented earlier, 80% of 1 RM if about a 7 rep max (RM). What this protocol does is fatigue you just enough with the first 3 sets to make your theoretical 7RM (80%) to turn into a hard set of 5.
If you get 5 reps on your last set, go ahead and estimate your 1RM slightly higher for the next workout and adjust the percentages accordingly. If you don’t get 5 on your last set, stay at the same percentages for the next workout and try to complete all 5 reps. Pretty easy, right?
Much like the One Half + 1 method presented earlier, this protocol is most productive for high beginner to intermediate trainees and/or for those new to multiple set and/or lower rep training at heavier loads.
3. The Stair Step Protocol
This approach was made popular by Mike Robertson of Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training (IFAST) in an article he wrote for T-Nation. It is also fairly similar to the protocols Eric Cressey of Cressey Performance in Boston, MA uses with his clients at times.
This is a great 8 week protocol for high beginner to intermediate lifters (and advanced guys could certainly benefit as well). Before going into detail on this, I just want to point out that applying percentages of 1RM and/or rep maxes (RM’s) is a little more difficult, as Mike didn’t make specific recommendations on loading in the original article he wrote for T-Nation. So, you’ll have to go with your own intuition here and follow the general principles I’ve outlined below:
4 Week Accumulation Phase
Week 1 Base Week: 3 sets of 8–10 reps
Week 2 More Volume: 4 sets of 8–10
Week 3 Slightly Less Volume but More Intensity (really ramp up the weight and decrease the reps): 2–3 sets of 6–8 reps
Week 4 Light Deload Week: 2 sets of 6 reps
4 Week Intensification Phase
Week 1 Base Week: 3 sets of 5 reps
Week 2 More Volume: 4 sets of 5 reps
Week 3 Slightly less Volume but More Intensity (really ramp up the weight and decrease the reps): 2–3 sets of 5 reps
Week 4 Light Deload Week: 2 sets of 5 reps
If you are a high beginner to intermediate trainee, I’d recommend performing the same main exercise for all 8 weeks. If you are truly advanced, you can consider performing a different main exercise for each phase but obviously keep the exercise within the same “family” or category (for instance, switch from a bench press to a close grip bench press).
4. The 6/5/4/3/2/1 Protocol
This is nice protocol to use to transition into working with heavier absolute training loads approaching or equal to 90% of a 1RM. In the 3 protocols described above, most will only be approaching 80–85% of 1RM, so this is a nice protocol to use to start breaking in your CNS and “feeling” heavy weights.
It goes like this:
Set 1: 6 reps at 70% of 1RM
Set 2: 5 reps at 75% of 1RM
Set 3: 4 reps at 80% of 1 RM
Set 4: 3 reps at 82.5–85% of 1 RM
Set 5: 2 reps at 85–87.5% of 1RM
Set 6: 1 rep at 92.5–95% of 1RM
If you complete all the prescribed sets and reps, estimate your 1RM just a bit higher the next workout and adjust the percentages. If you don’t hit all your sets and reps, either stay with the same weights until you do or adjust your 1RM downwards and readjust the percentages.
5. 5/3/1 Protocol
This method, made overwhelmingly popular by Jim Wendler of www.elitefts.com, is another great strength building protocol. Jim sells an entire e-book covering every imaginable detail of this protocol and program, so, if you want the full scoop, get on over to www.elitefts.com and buy it…it’s cheap.
With this being said, here is an overview of the program:
*NOTE: these numbers are based on a “training/soft” max and not a true 1RM. Base your percentages off a max you know you could confidently get under any circumstances…this is not a smelling salts, Slayer blaring, someone slapping you in the face max.
Set 1: 5 reps @ 65%
Set 2: 5 reps @ 75%
*Set 3: 5 reps @ 85%
*if you have more reps left in you on this set, try to get more than 5
Set 1: 3 reps @ 70%
Set 2: 3 reps @ 80%
*Set 3: 3 reps @ 90%
*if you have more reps left in you on this set, try to get more than 3
Set 1: 5 reps @ 75%
Set 2: 3 reps @ 85%
*Set 3: 1 rep @ 95%
*if you have more reps left in you on this set, try to get more than 1
Week 4 Deload Week
3 sets of 5 reps @ 40, 50, and 60%
At this point, you can estimate your 1 RM a bit higher based on your performance and start the cycle over again at week 1. This protocol, in my opinion, is best geared towards high intermediate to advanced trainees because you will be working with loads approaching 100% of 1RM.
6. The “Defranco”Protocol
I picked up this protocol from Joe Defranco, Owner of Defranco’s Training Systems in New Jersey. Joe put his own “spin” on the previously discussed 5/3/1 protocol and then I went ahead and put my own spin on Joe’s creation (I adjusted some of the percentages).
Week 1: Sets of 8, 6, and 4 @ 70%, 75%, 80% of 1RM
Week 2: Sets of 7, 5, and 3 @ 72.5%, 77.5%, 82.5% of 1RM
Week 3: Sets of 6, 4, and 2 @ 75%, 80%, 87.5% of 1RM
Week 4: Sets of 5, 3, and 1 @ 77.5%, 82.5%, 92.5% of 1RM
Week 5: Light Deload Week
At this point, you can go back to week 1 and adjust your 1RM and the corresponding percentages a bit higher. This protocol should generally be reserved for high intermediate to advanced trainees, as you’ll be using weights in excess of 90% of 1RM at certain times. Also, one more thing to note here, just like on the 5/3/1 protocol, if you feel as though you can perform more than the prescribed number of repetitions ON THE LAST SET (with the exception of week 5), go for it!
7. Singles at 90%+
Now we are getting into some serious strength work. I picked up this approach from the hilarious and knowledgeable Tony Gentilcore of the aforementioned Cressey Performance in Boston, MA.
Basically, you are just performing a certain number of 1 rep sets at or above 90% of your 1 RM. This is what Tony outlined in an article he wrote for T-Muscle some time ago:
Week 1: 5 sets of 1 rep at or above 90% of 1RM
Week 2: 4 sets of 1 rep at or above 90% of 1 RM
Week 3: 7 sets of 1 rep at or above 90% of 1RM
Week 4: 3 sets of 1 rep at or above 90% of 1RM
Basically, each training session is a chance to hit a new 1RM personal record (notice I said “at or ABOVE 90%”). So, as an example, let’s say your 1RM squat is 400 lbs. The goal during the first week is to get in 5 lifts at or above 90%. The session may look something like this:
Set 1: 360x1 (90%)
Set 2: 370x1 (92.5%)
Set 3: 380x1 (95%)
Set 4: 400x1 (100%)
At this point, you’ve gotten in 4 lifts at 90% or above. You are scheduled to do 5, so, at this point, you can either try to set a new PR, or you can drop back down by 5–10% and hit another single rep set. Make sense?
Tony recommends only using this protocol for one exercise each workout and no more than 2–3 times each week total. I completely agree with this.
You’ll also notice Tony kind of incorporates a “stair step” type approach, as discussed earlier, in that the volume of reps at or above 90% goes up or down each week. I like this, as doing too much volume at or above 90% can fry your central nervous system.
Also, one more thing to note, if you miss any rep while using this protocol, you should count this as 2 against the total number of reps called for. So, on week 3, if you’ve successfully done 5 reps at or above 90%, and you increase the weight for the 6th set, but miss the rep, this counts as 2 reps. This makes for a total of 7 and you are done.
8. Max Effort Protocol
This is kind of the pinnacle and purest form of a strength building protocol. This protocol is to be used only by high intermediate to advanced trainees.This was made popular by Louie Simmons of the legendary Westside Barbell Club in Columbus, OH and also by the team at Elite FTS.
Basically, this is working up to a true 1 rep max (although a 2–3 rep max would be fine also). It is similar to the 90%+ protocol I just described above as you are working with truly max weights and trying to set PR’s. The difference is that there is not a prescribed number of lifts to complete at or above 90%, although you’ll certainly be getting in a number of lifts at this level as you warm-up/”ramp up” to a true 1RM attempt.
Expanding on the concept of warm-up/”ramp-up” sets, the guys from Westside and Elite recommend (as do I), that there be a very gradual and thorough ramp-up in load as you work up to your 1RM. You just don’t want to do 2 or 3 warm-up sets and then try to hit a new 1RM.
I would recommend staying with the same exercise each week (until you stall out…more on that below) when using this protocol, and, as discussed above, this protocol should not be used more than twice per week, and never more than once per week on the same exercise.
On a week to week basis, the goal is to continue setting personal records on each exercise for a single rep set (although you could also work up to a max set of 2 or 3 reps if you wanted to). If you stall out for more than 2 workouts and do not hit a personal record, it is advised that you switch to a new exercise within the same category (going from a traditional barbell bench press to a barbell floor press for example). This is referred to as the “Conjugate” method, and is meant to allow you to continue setting records using the same set of muscles as opposed to staying with the same exercise week in and week out and remaining at a plateau.
9. Dan John’s 1…2…3 @ 80% Protocol
This protocol sounds so simple you’d never think it would work…but it does…and very well.
Simply choose 1 lift in a workout and use 80% of your estimated 1 rep max. After some ramp-up sets to that weight, do 1 rep. Take a little rest (maybe 30–45 seconds) and do 2 reps. Take another little rest and do 3 reps. Rest 2:00 and run through this 3 times. Each workout, add just a little bit of weight (pick up a set of fractional plates at http://www.roguefitness.com) .
This is just a form of cluster type training (the rest periods between reps/sets are a little longer than in normal clusters). The focus is on getting crisp, clean, well-executed reps with dialed in technique and not burning yourself out and overly grinding. You end up getting in 18 reps with a load most people can only do 5–7 reps with. It’s just beautiful in it’s simplicity.
Final Thoughts and Wrap-Up
Well there you have it: 9 of the best set and rep schemes you can use for your entire training career. I want to end by summarizing and reinforcing a few points:
These protocols are only to be used on ONE exercise at the BEGINNING of each workout
There should be 2–4 minutes of complete rest between sets for every one of the 9 protocols described above
For the vast majority of the 9 protocols listed above, warm-up/”ramp-up” sets should be performed before the first working set listed. For the first 3 protocols listed, you won’t need that many warm-up’s/”ramp-ups”. However, for the others, you will need to warm-up/”ramp-up” thoroughly. I advise several low rep (1–3) warm-up/”ramp-up” sets starting at 50% of your first work set load. Go up in 5–10% increments until you approach your first work set. You don’t need a lot of rest between these warm-up/”ramp-up” sets.
ALWAYS strive to be progressive when using these protocols. If you are not progressive, you should not expect your strength to improve. Don’t “work out”…train!
Have fun, and attack these protocols with the utmost focus and intensity…REFUSE TO FAIL!
Always perform your exercises with pristine technique and body alignment…get stronger THE RIGHT WAY!
Quantify everything. Keep a detailed log/journal. Always know what your current best efforts are and try to surpass them. Don’t try to remember what you did the last workout…don’t be haphazard.
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