Superstition proves pervasive in the strength and bodybuilding world. An idea that perpetuates even still is the magic number attached to repetition prescriptions.
You will hear of 3 sets of 8 reps. 3 sets of 10. Things need to be even and divisible by two for the simple bodybuilder’s mind to comprehend… until we decide to go toe-dipping into the enchanted rep range of strength that is the set of 5.
This dabbling with dirty numbers should prove to be mind-expanding stuff… but alas the magic 5 reps is bound to a spell that must be performed in sets of 5 also (5×5), only then will you unlock the potential to gain both strength and size.
Why do we only work in certain numbers? What’s the difference between 3×8 and 3×10?When was the last time you did sets of 7 reps?
I imagine a scene from Father Ted when Dougall unwittingly makes a fellow priest question his faith entirely to the point where he gives up on Catholicism and is pictured at the end of the episode smoking a joint and leaving the scene to track aliens across area 51… In this article, I aim to not only make you question things but to also offer a little guidance on your own crisis of faith to save you from any resulting nihilism.
Lifting weights gets harder as the weight gets heavier. Indeed.
If the weight is the absolute heaviest you can possibly lift at that moment in time you will only be able to lift it once. Indeed.
If you know that particular weight is the absolute heaviest thing you can lift there is no way you could logically program it in your routine as 3 sets of 8 repetitions. It could only be programmed as 1 x 1.
If you took some weight off and tried it again you might be able to lift it twice. You would then only be able to maximally program it in sets of 2 repetitions. Okay, so that makes sense. The load dictates the number of repetitions we can do.
Lifting things that we can only possibly lift once or twice is really hard. It’s taxing, we could hurt ourselves. Most smart people only lift like this every once in a while to test how strong they are. These people are powerlifters, strongmen, and Olympic lifters. They can only win their sports by being the strongest.
How do you get around training to be strong but not risking messing yourself up on a regular basis? You work sub-maximally. That is, you take a high percentage of your Maximum weight lifted and do that instead.
Since you could only do it once, working directly off a percentage is still maximal and still runs the risk off messing you up so even smarter strong people will take this into consideration and leave at least one rep in reserve within their programming. The most simple way of doing this is to program 95% of 1RM which would be 2 reps maximally, so program it as one rep. About as specific as you can be with less chance of visiting Snap City.
The other way of doing this is with experienced athletes, they can work with Reps in Reserve during the set. This means that they can have a set of 95% of 1RM programmed at 1RIR (Reps in Reserve) naturally they should stop at 1 Rep, but maybe if they feel particularly good they may be able to do 2.
(That’s a very brief outline of a possible method for strength programming)
So strength athletes need to train nearer to their one rep maximum more often, to do it more often they can do it submaximally.
So why do specific rep numbers matter when the only thing governing them is how much weight is on the bar? The difference between a set of 3 and a set of 5 is two reps and should really only be based on how intense the sets are.
For people who are not solely concerned with the end goal of lifting something so heavy that we can only do it once, we have a lot of options. I will talk now, as always, about getting swole.
Brad Schoenfeld identified 3 main mechanisms of muscle growth.
1. Muscle Damage
2. Mechanical Tension (Load)
3. Metabolic Stress/By-products
Underlying these three mechanisms is Total Volume Work. (Sets x Reps x Load = Total Volume Work)
If you look to get bigger you can use all three of these things in differing proportions by looking at how you program, but at the end of it all they will add up to the total volume work.
The only reason we even think to program in sets of 8 or 10 should be in relation to how we affect the aforementioned variables. Mechanical Tension is affected primarily by the load we put on the bar and the difficulty of the exercise pattern. Since it is primarily affected by load, we will need to look at how close the weight is to maximal and work back from there. Can we choose 1 rep? Yes, of course. We get lots of mechanical tension and probably a lot of muscle damage. We won’t get a lot of metabolic byproducts though because we don’t spend much time accessing and turning over fuel in the time it takes us to lift the weight just once. We use stored creatine phosphate.
How does this affect total volume though? 1 Rep x 1 Set x lets say 100kg = 100 units of total work.
Could we have chosen a load that we can do 5 reps with? Yes, of course. How has that affected the other variables? Well, its still rather heavy as it scales back from our 1 Rep Max. We get a lot of mechanical tension. We will probably get a lot of muscle damage and we might get a tad more metabolic byproducts floating around but the main thing we have affected here is the Total volume work. 1 set x 5 reps x lets say 85kg = 425 units of total volume work.
That’s more than 4 times the overall work as the 1 x 100kg and because you are smart you left at least one rep in reserve.
You could have chosen any number with the goal of increasing your volume. The proportion of volume that you put in further away from 1 rep max has the potential to accumulate more volume (full stop) but also more volume accumulating metabolic byproducts which have their own benefits for muscle growth and having less risk of injury, which can be fun/sickening to use sometimes. These are your sets of ~15 Reps Plus, the first few will be easy enough and then the last few will be tough.
So you could have done a set of 7. You could have done a set of 6. Hell, you could have done 3 sets of 6. The devil’s number 666. But, why be so prescriptive with numbers?
That’s rep numbers covered but what about magic set numbers? 5 x 5 anyone? Why 5 sets of 5 reps?
As I explained before, 5 reps should be pretty darn heavy. At most, it’s about 85 to 87% of your max. At least it’s 80 to 83% (this would leave a couple of reps in the tank and make sure you were hitting the reps fast). So if it’s on the lower end I can understand having 5 sets as it’s a little easier. On the higher end that’s going to be very fatiguing.
Where does 5×5 end and where does it begin? If you do 5×5 at near maximal loads for everything that’s pretty absurd. Each set multiplies your total volume load by a helluvalot. Take the lens back and look through a wider angle, take the week as a whole. How many sets are you going to do per body-part? How often are you going to train?
The evidence suggests that 10 sets per body-part per week is the realm you should be in. You can have more and less. You can progress over the weeks and months and years to have more. You should though, look at your program and see if 5 x 5 actually means anything to your program.
For example. Week one of your program : You have flat bench press first, followed by incline dumbbell press.
Are you going to do 5×5 on each exercise? That’s 10 sets for chest in that session alone, all presumably heavy enough to warrant 5 reps so 83-87%. That’s about a weeks volume of work depending on individual differences and experience level.
Do you hit chest again later that week? The evidence suggests you should.
5 x 5 again? Two more exercises? 20 sets for chest that week all at 83-87% and that’s only the first week. Where in the hell do you go from there?
Is everything you do going to be 5×5? shoulders, back, quads?
3×8? 3×10? Nothing wrong with the numbers but why not open up into a range of 8-10, you might have been able to get 3 x 10 on a good day anyway with that same weight as 3 x 8. That’s a progression. Note it down. Maybe you fall short on your last sets by one or two. That’s fine because you had a range and you have weeks ahead of you to get better. You didn’t need to go to failure either because it’s only your first week, you may never need to take a set to failure at all this month, your settling in and finding your groove while your feeling fresh, the volume will come and it might come in sets of 4 and reps of 7.
You can add sets as the weeks go on. More volume to force more adaptation, but only when you need to force an adaptation. Think about things on a longer scale before you start throwing in the kitchen sink.
Your neuromuscular system doesn’t intellectualize numbers. Humans created numbers. We use them as a tool to measure. Our bodies only understand adaptation to stimuli.
As Stevie Wonder once said, superstition ain’t the way.