Diminishing Sets

"Hi James,

"Happy holidays. My goals are to pack on the muscle, strip away the fat and boost the confidence this 2010. Lofty goals, indeed considering that I'm having less time each year to devote to lifting. I've been getting to the gym lately and doing 200 reps of 1 body part through multiple exercises and then completing 50 reps each of 2 other body parts again with multiple exercises.

"I know that you're all about working a body part for at least 3 times a week, and this works for me because I don't have to expend too much mental energy thinking about any thing else other then feeling the pump and completing the amount of reps I set out to do. This makes the process efficient as well, I believe. What do you think of this plan? Would you recommend any changes?"


My Answer: Having a set number of reps to aim for is a solid plan that is also quite simple to implement. Hypertrophy is biased towards higher volume. The more reps you do, the more hypertrophy you will achieve. The volume has to be performed at a certain intensity zone of course, 70-90% of your 1RM. But in general the higher the volume the greater the muscular gains.

What constitutes higher volume? Well at the low end is 20-25 total reps per body part. This is why the 5x5 method works so well at developing size and strength, because the total volume (5 x 5 = 25 reps) meets the minimum volume standard for size gains.

At the high end is 100-150 total reps. The 10x10 method is at the upper end of the volume threshold for size and muscular gains. Any more than 150 total reps and you are going to overtrain rather quickly.

There are exceptions to the 100-150 limit, which are calisthenics and calf exercises. The calves thrive on high rep training, so 200 total reps for them would be fine. Certain calisthenic exercises such as pushups work well with 200 rep targets, since a well-trained athlete can easily reach 20-30 reps in a single set.

What I suggest to you is to have different set targets for different exercises. For example, you could perform a program such as this:

Pull-ups (50 total reps)
Feet elevated pushups (100-200 total reps)
Barbell back squats (20-50 total reps)
One legged calf raises, bodyweight only (100-200 total reps)
Barbell curls (50-100 total reps)
Parallel bar dips (50-100 total reps)

Different rep targets are chosen depending on how well you can perform the exercise. So if you can only do 8 reps of pull-ups, then 50 reps total reps would be an appropriate target as opposed to 100 or 200 reps.

One tactic that I like to employ that's mentioned in Strength and Physique Volume One and Volume Two is called "diminishing sets." The goal of this technique is to reach the target rep in the fewest number of sets with minimal rest (10-30 seconds). So if you perform 5 sets of 100 calf raises in one workout, your goal for the next workout is to perform 4 sets or less of 100 calf raises. This is an excellent technique for muscularity and fat loss.
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