Want to build pure brute strength? How about unadulterated muscular size? Maybe both? Here are the best set/rep schemes for your goal.
Here's what you need to know...
- There's no one best set/rep scheme for every goal, but there are plenty of great plans to choose from, all time-tested and proven to work.
- Heavy, low rep work like 10 x 1, 5 x 2, and ramping up to a 2 or 3RM work great for pure strength gains. "Waves" and "ratchet loading" are also effective methods.
- For gaining size and strength, the classic 5 x 5 stands tall, but working with 2 to 6 reps and using techniques like clusters and contrast sets also work.
- For pure muscle gain, use volume in a moderate rep range and shorten the rest periods. 4x8, 6x6, and 10/8/6/20 have been around forever and continue to pack on muscle.
"How Many Sets and Reps Should I Do?"
People always want a cut and dry answer to this question, but it's not that simple. There's no one "best" set/rep scheme, regardless of your goal.
But there are several great ones. Here are 22 of the most effective set/rep schemes that have been proven in the field. You can't go wrong with any of them if you respect the guidelines and train hard.
8 Ways to Build Pure Strength
1 – Ramping up to a 1RM using 60-97/100%
Seems simple enough. "Do a lot of progressively heavier singles, eventually getting to a near-max." The basic principle of ramping can be that easy to understand.
You start with a moderate load and gradually build your way up to the heaviest weight you can lift for the chosen rep number.
Ramping works optimally with low reps, which is why it's best suited for straight-forward strength work. "Ramping" to a 10 or 12-rep max is inefficient and ineffective because of the relatively-lighter weights, cumulative fatigue, and other factors.
Ramping is based on the fact that, every time you perform a set, two things happen in the body.
First, you activate the nervous system and increase potentiation, which can increase your performance on subsequent sets. Second, you create both neural and muscular fatigue, which decreases performance potential.
It's a fine balance, and the key to effective ramping is creating more activation with as little fatigue as possible. Because activation is linked to force production, you can either amp up the nervous system by lifting heavy weights or by accelerating the weight as much as possible.
There are four key guidelines to follow when ramping, regardless of whether it's up to a 1, 2, or 3RM:
- Only do the chosen rep number on all your sets, even the lighter ones. Because you're using lighter weights, you're able to accelerate them and increase activation without building up fatigue.
- Treat every set as if it were a max effort set. "Warm-ups" don't exist with ramping. Each set is a practice set leading to the max effort and should be done with 100% focus while trying to push or pull on the bar as hard as possible.
- Don't use too many sets to work up to your RM because you want to avoid excessive fatigue. It's often best to start with 60% of your 1RM when ramping. I used to take up to 12 sets to reach my top weight, but later found better results using only 5 or 6 sets to get there. Don't go too with too few sets either, otherwise the jumps in weight will be too large and you'll create an inhibitory effect instead of a stimulating one.
- Rest long enough to prevent fatigue from hurting your performance, but not so long that you lose the neural potentiation effect. Two minutes between ramping sets works best for most lifters.
In the past, ramping to a 1RM was my preferred way of ramping, but I eventually found it to be at least two to three times harder to recover from than ramping to a 2 or 3RM.
While ramping to a 1RM is a very effective way to peak strength, it shouldn't be used for more than three weeks in a row.
2 – Ramping Up to a 2RM using 60-92/95%
This is nearly the same as ramping to a 1RM.
Ramping with sets of 2, instead of singles, is something that I often use to learn to demonstrate strength without having the huge toll that a 1RM can take on my body and nervous system.
3 – Ramping Up to a 3RM using 60-90%
Ramping to a 3RM builds strength with much less negative impact on the nervous system.
When ramping to a 3RM, you'll normally reach a point that's approximately 90% of your max, so make jumps of about 7-10% per set. It might look something like this:
- 165 lbs x 3
- 185 lbs x 3
- 205 lbs x 3
- 225 lbs x 3
- 245 lbs x 3
- 275 lbs x 3
4 – 10 x 1 at 90%
Ten sets of singles will allow you to gain strength as well as the skill to be able to demonstrate that strength.
You can certainly build strength using weights around 80%, but it's the lifts at 90%+ that make you good at demonstrating maximum strength and actually straining to successfully complete a near-max lift.
You can build just as much strength using weights that are 90% 1RM as you can using weights that are 95-100% 1RM.
And while you may be able to get three or four sets in the 95-100% range (more than that and you risk neural fatigue and reduced progress), you can double that volume by simply going down to 90%!
5 – 5 x 2 using 90%
Five "hard doubles" is easier psychologically, even if you're using the same percentage and do the same total reps as the 10 singles. It can be difficult to maintain focus and intensity over 10 sets, even if each set is very short.
You also recruit more motor units doing hard doubles than singles at the same intensity level because you create some fatigue with the first rep and are forced to recruit more motor units to be able to perform the second rep.
Ten singles can be very effective for advanced lifters with lots of heavy lifting experience because they're generally able to recruit more motor-units in that one rep.
Intermediate lifters will get better results from the doubles because they can't recruit as many fibers in the first rep and need the second to get complete stimulation.
6 – 3 x 3 @ 90%
"Hard triples" are a good way to train for strength if you have little experience in maximal lifting.
The benefits are similar to the hard doubles in that you use fatigue from the first reps to increase motor unit recruitment as the set progresses.
Intermediates will make great gains too, but it might be a bit too demanding for advanced lifters because they're often more efficient at recruiting muscle fibers and because their max will be higher.
90% of 500 pounds is more demanding on the body than 90% of 200 pounds, even if, relatively speaking, the intensity is the same. Advanced lifters can still use it, but doing five doubles would work better in most situations.
The type of advanced lifter who would benefit the most from hard triples is someone who's strong but not explosive. Naturally-explosive lifters are the best at recruiting fast-twitch fibers and will quickly lose strength from rep to rep.
It's not rare to have an explosive lifter fail to get 3 reps at 90% while a strong but slower lifter can bang out 5 reps with that weight.
7 – 3/2/1 Waves using 88-97/102%
This is quite possibly the most powerful loading scheme you can use to build strength.
Some experts may have spoken out against it, but I've seen it work too many times to listen to "theory" and disregard reality. Heck, even Ilya Illyin, arguably the best Olympic lifter at the moment, uses this scheme in his training.
It has a profoundly-stimulating effect on the nervous system, but it can also be draining because of the high neural output.
You perform "waves" of three sets, increasing the weight and decreasing the reps in each set, and resting your normal length of time between sets (and between waves).
If you successfully complete all three sets of a wave without missing a rep, you proceed to another wave of three sets with more weight than the preceding wave. I recommend starting the next wave with the load you used for the second set of the preceding wave.
If you can complete all the reps in that second wave, you start a third wave. Stop the exercise when you can no longer complete a wave.
Note that the first wave is generally conservative while the second one is more challenging but a notch below your true maximum. The third wave, ideally, leads to a 1RM. Being able to complete four waves would lead to a PR.
If your 1RM on a lift is 355 pounds, your waves on a perfect day might look like this:
- Wave 1:
- 315 lbs x 3
- 325 lbs x 2
- 335 lbs x 1
- Wave 2:
- 325 lbs x 3
- 335 lbs x 2
- 345 lbs x 1
- Wave 3:
- 335 lbs x 3
- 345 lbs x 2
- 355 lbs x 1
- Wave 4:
- 345 lbs x 3
- 355 lbs x 2
- 365 lbs x 1
On any given day, you should be able to complete two waves. Completing three waves is a very good session. Completing four waves is an amazing workout. Completing five waves means that you underestimated the weights to use!
8 – 1/3 Ratchet Loading with 80-95%
Ratchet loading is a variation of wave loading, using "waves" of two sets. The difference is that the same weight is used for both sets in a wave, but the reps increase from one set to the next.
The first set is designed to potentiate the nervous system and get used to the new weight; the second set is a more demanding effort. Rest approximately 90 seconds after the first set and two minutes after the second set of each pair.
Normally we use three "waves"/ratchets for a total of 6 sets but, as with 3/2/1 waves, you may be able to do four "waves" on a particularly good day.
It's is a good way to build strength as you practice performing a lift with heavy loads while not being as hard on the nervous system as 3/2/1 waves.
A sample ratchet loading workout could be:
- Ratchet 1:
- 80% x 1
- 80% x 3
- Ratchet 2:
- 85% x 1
- 85% x 3
- Ratchet 3:
- 90% x 1
- 90% x 3
- Ratchet 4:
- 92-95% x 1
- 92-95% x 3
8 Plans for the Best of Both Worlds - Size and Strength
1 – 5 x 5 using 75-85%
The 5x5 method is probably responsible for building more muscle and strength than any other approach because it has been one of the longest-standing training methods.
Tons of respected strength coaches, weightlifters, and bodybuilders have been using it for over five decades and it still thrives today.
There are many variations of this approach.
- All five sets with the same weight.
- Gradually working up to 2-3 max sets of 5, with the first two sets being 10-20% lighter.
- Doing all five sets with the same weight, but alternating heavier days with 80-85% and lighter days with 75%.
They all work as long as you keep the reps at 5 per set and the load between 75 and 85%.
2 – 5/4/3/2/1 with 80-95%
This is one of my favorite schemes because it's based on a psychological trick that gets you more mentally involved as the workout goes on. It's the scheme to use on days you're not feeling "into it."
You remove one rep while adding weight on every set. The decreasing rep pattern lets you believe that each set is "easier" than the one before, while the added weight makes it harder.
While you can sometimes end the 5/4/3/2/1 with a true 1RM, being a bit more conservative will stimulate gains just as much while having less of a negative impact on the nervous system.
A typical workout would be:
- 80% x 5
- 82% x 4
- 85% x 3
- 87-90% x 2
- 92-95% x 1
3 – 5/4/3/2/1/1+ using 80-105%
This is an advanced version of the 5/4/3/2/1. Perform the first five sets as described above, but after the first single, continue doing sets of 1 until you hit a max for the day.
- 80% x 5
- 82% x 4
- 85% x 3
- 90% x 2
- 95% x 1
- 100% x 1
- 102-105% x 1
- (Attempt at a PR if you're feeling strong that day)
It's tempting to always go for that extra PR since the 5/4/3/2/1 countdown makes you feel super strong, but going for a new max too often will drain the nervous system and you'll quickly hit a wall and stop progressing.
Only push it when you're honestly sure you'll hit something big.
4 – 1/2/4/6 using 80-92%
This is the opposite of 5/4/3/2/1, but it can be just as effective. You start with the lowest reps and heavier weights, and work your way up in reps while decreasing the load.
The benefit is that you amp up the nervous system prior to doing the higher reps sets, which will allow you to recruit more fast-twitch fibers on the volume set, stimulating more growth.
Note that we skip the sets of 3 and 5 reps because we want to potentiate the nervous system early on and reach the last set without accumulating too much fatigue.
The progression might look like:
- 90-92% x 1
- 88-90% x 2
- 85% x 4
- 80% x 6+
- (The objective is 6 reps, but if you can get 7 or 8, go for it, even if it means hitting failure.)
5 – Cluster 5s with 88-92%
Cluster 5s are an advanced method of training, where you perform 5 reps with a load you'd normally use for 3 reps (generally using 88-92%) by taking pauses between every rep.
Rack the bar after each rep as if you were doing singles, don't hold it in the locked out (or stretched) position, and pause as short as 5 seconds or as long as 20 seconds.
The goal is to get all 5 reps in, so you might start with shorter breaks early in the set and then extend the mini-rest as the set (and fatigue) progresses.
The short break is enough to replenish some ATP in the muscles, slightly recharge the nervous system, and get rid of some metabolite accumulation, but it's not long enough to get rid of all the fatigue from the previous reps.
This results in you being able to use a bit more weight than you normally would for 5 "normal" reps while still being forced to recruit more motor units from rep to rep due to some fatigue accumulation.
6 – 6/4/2 Waves with 75-90%
The 6/4/2 wave loading approach represents one of the best compromises between strength and size gains.
The 6/4/2 scheme uses more volume, so you hit your limit in three waves. With 6/4/2 waves, the first wave is conservative, the second wave would lead to your 2RM, and a third wave would lead to a personal record for 2 reps.
7 – 3/5 Ratchet Loading using 75-85%
This is the strength/hypertrophy variation of 1/3 ratchet loading.
You still use "waves" of two sets with same weight for both sets, and you rest 90 seconds after the first set and two minutes after the second, but you're working with different loads to accommodate the slightly higher rep ranges.
- Ratchet 1:
- 75% x 3
- 75% x 5
- Ratchet 2:
- 80% x 3
- 80% x 5
- Ratchet 3:
- 85% x 3
- 85% x 5
Similar to the 6/4/2 waves, you only do three "ratchets" because of the higher overall volume.
8 – 1/6 Contrast Loading with 70-95%
This loading scheme uses contrasts between sets of 1 rep with 90-95% of your maximum and sets of 6 reps with 70-80% of your 1RM. Perform a total of 6 sets, or 3 contrast pairings.
Each pairing is gradually heavier, so it would look like this:
- 90% x 1
- 70% x 6
- 92.5% x 1
- 75% x 6
- 95% x 1
- 80% x 6+
On the very last set, keep going up to failure, however many reps it takes. There's a good chance you'll often get more than 6 because of the neural activation from the preceding sets.
This approach takes advantage of the fact that near-maximal heavy lifting increases neural activation and improves the capacity to recruit fast twitch fibers in lighter sets that are performed soon afterwards, technically known as " post-tetanic potentiation."
Doing the sets in the reverse order, with the lighter/higher rep set just before the heavy work, wouldn't have the same effect.
6 Routines for Maximum Size
1 – 4 x 8 with 70%
Boring, bland, but effective!
The straight-forward 4x8 is another training protocol that bodybuilders have relied on for over 40 years. If it's stuck around for that long, there's good reason. It's not flashy, but the basics never let you down.
Doing 4 sets of 8, with each set getting you close to failure, is a decent way to stimulate growth, especially for beginners.
2 – 10/8/6/15-20 using 50-75%
The first three sets are done with gradually heavier weights and progressively fewer reps, and you finish off with a high-rep pump set. This approach is very effective for pure muscle growth since it attacks all the zones that have the greatest impact on hypertrophy.
- 60% x 10
- 70% x 8
- 75% x 6
- 50% x 15-20 reps
This method, in particular, will be even more effective when used with Plazma™ because the main benefit of that last very-high rep set is to bring nutrient-rich blood into the muscle that was stimulated during the earlier, heavier sets.
3 – 6 x 6 using 70% with short rest
Vince Gironda called this loading scheme "a Mr. Olympia routine," most likely because it was one he relied on when training Larry Scott, the first Mr. Olympia.
It's based on a high training density, not on load. Perform 6 sets of 6 with a moderate weight that you could do for 10 reps, or roughly 70% 1RM instead of an actual 6-rep max, and you must complete all six sets in as little time as possible.
Gironda'srecommendations were normally to shoot for rest periods of 30 seconds at most, with more advanced clients being allowed no more than 15 seconds, if that long.
Remember, the key factor with this loading scheme is density, not load. If you can't do all 6 sets with a strict 30 seconds rest, reduce the load until you adapt to the short rest periods.
4 – 8 x 8 using 60% with short rest
Vince Gironda called this one "the honest workout" because of the simple, honest muscle it could build.
It's basically the same thing as 6 x 6, but with more sets and more reps. Because of the higher total volume, the weights are slightly less, around 60% 1RM or a weight you could handle for about 12 reps.
This is obviously more demanding and the goal is still to create the biggest pump possible in the shortest time possible. That means strictly-timed rest periods of no more than 30 seconds, and not being afraid to reduce the weight when needed.
5 – Rest Pause 6 + 4 using 75-80%
Rest pause is one of the most effective, high intensity techniques to stimulate growth.
It's somewhat similar to clusters because you end up doing more reps than you "should" be able to do with a given load by including a rest period within the set itself.
The version that works best for size is using 75-80%, generally a weight you can get 6 or 7 reps with. Do 6 reps with that weight, then rack the bar and rest for 15-20 seconds, and then try to complete 4 more reps with the same weight.
This is a very demanding technique, so don't do more than one or two sets of this technique per exercise. You could perform one or two "regular" sets of 6, then end with one or two of these rest pause sets.
6 – 5-4-3-2-1 Heavy Density Lifting @ 70%
HDL is an even more difficult form of rest pause training that works amazingly well, but is very draining on the body. You shouldn't perform it for more than 3 workouts in a row.
Using the same weight throughout the set (around 70% or a weight you could do for 10 good reps), you do 5 reps, rack the bar and rest 15 seconds, do 4 reps, rest 15 seconds, do 3 more reps, rest 15 seconds, get 2 more reps, rest 15 seconds, and then finish one final rep.
Perform no more than three of these monster sets per workout.
Each set ends up letting you complete 15 total reps with a load you could've done for only 8-10 "regular" reps, so it's clear why this is among the best size-builders.