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Basic Programming, Part 3: Reps & Load Prescription

You’ve got your goals nailed down. You picked a training split that works toward those goals and meshes with your work schedule. You added some meat to your program by selecting the exercises that best mimic your everyday life and will apply the best training stimuli. So how many reps? How many sets? How much weight should you use?

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While we’ve covered load prescription before with regards to athletes and everyday lifters, it always merits another look. I’m not a huge fan of specific load prescription or working off of percentages of your maxes (at least regularly). Every day is a new day and little things like +/- 5 minutes of sleep, +/- 200 calories, or varying daily stress levels can affect your performance more a lot more than you think. Additionally, when training in a balanced program, improvement is expected (at least it should be, right?). Operating off of numbers that could be 8+ weeks old is a fool’s errand, even if you attempt to account for potential improvement.

That’s why I prefer to prescribe specific reps or rep ranges when designing programs. It gives you some play when determining today’s loads and allows for improvement and moon shots when you’re feeling up to it. Within weeks after the first session, most people have a general idea of what they can move for 8 reps. I do however, have some easy guidelines to follow when considering adding load… but we’ll get to that later.

Just like with training splits and exercise selection, your rep ranges should be determined by the desired outcome. You wouldn’t need to work near your potential max in the 1-3 rep range if you’re not a competitive athlete or if maximal strength isn’t your goal. On the other end of the spectrum, you wouldn’t need to cram a ton of training volume for hypertrophy in your program if you’re not planning on drowning in spray tan and strutting around in a bikini on stage. I’m not knocking it. It’s just not for you.

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While it’s not necessarily a 100% perfect system, a lower rep count skews more towards absolute strength and power while a higher rep count leans in favor of endurance or hypertrophy.

Regardless of your goals, when performing big compound lifts, you’ll want to lower your volume a little. It doesn’t have to be in the max strength range but we can all stand to get a little stronger, and a little muscle rigidity never hurt anyone. Again, not necessarily in the 1-3 rep range but if most of your program is centered around 12-15 reps, it might still be in your best interest (from a performance-related standpoint) to get in the squat rack for 8 reps. From a safety angle, compound lifts have a lot of moving parts and under the fatigue of high volume sets, technique will tend to break down. Pick your rep ranges wisely.

Typical rep ranges for the 4 major goals of resistance training are depicted below:

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Here’s the kicker: these rep ranges only apply if you’re using 100% of the weight you can capably move to complete those x reps. For example, if your 1-rep max for bench is 100lbs and you want to perform 8 reps, you should be using about 80% of your 1RM according to the NSCA’s guidelines.

That said, here’s something you don’t hear often: you don’t have to stick to traditional rep/ load schemes. You can move any amount of weight up to 80% for those 8 reps. Furthermore, this whole chart goes right out the window when you plug in additional variables such as time-under-tension/ rep tempo, rest periods, pauses, compound sets, supersets, circuits, work-up sets, concentric rate, exercise variant, alternative loading patterns, etc. The charts are a great jumping off point when you’re getting your beak wet but when it comes time to really force some neuromuscular adaptation, you may need to get a little creative when planning out your month.

In light of all that, the simplest way to go about it is to start lighter than you think you need and keep detailed records of what weight you used on which set and so on. If it’s too light, so what. You’ll live and your workout will continue. If you shoot for the moon and blow the proverbial wad too early in your workout, your CNS will be tanked and you won’t get as much out of the day as you should. If you find your first workout was too easy, go a little heavier next week. The reality is that the workout will come around again and it’s better to be mechanically efficient than it is to bench press the world. In other words, finish your reps. There’s a time and place for missed reps but those days shouldn’t come around too frequently.

This will seem like a “duh” moment but the best way to determine if you should add load for the next set is if you felt like you could have done more weight or more reps in the previous one. Be a little more systematic about it, though. Remember, it’s more important to finish quality reps. I have my athletes ask themselves if they had 3-5 more reps left in the tank following their set of a core lift (squats, bench press, etc). If it’s 5, go up. If it’s 3, stay there–the cumulative fatigue from subsequent sets will probably make the last set pretty tough. If it’s 0, maybe consider lightening the load a little so you don’t trash your CNS. It can take weeks to completely recover CNS fatigue. On auxiliary lifts (lateral raises, lunges, etc) you should almost always have some reps in the tank, even after the last set.

Long story short, beginner and intermediate lifters should set some finite reps or rep ranges based on the target goal and choose loads that allow them to finish core lift sets without leaving too much effort on the table. A little practice and experience will give you a strong understanding of your target loads. Advanced athletes, will probably need to get a little more creative if and when they eventually plateau after puberty.

Author: Aaron Runner, MS, CSCS

Aaron Runner is the Owner of Full-Stride Performance in Roswell, GA and a former NCAA Strength & Conditioning Coach.

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Aaron Runner, MS, CSCS View All

Aaron Runner is the Owner of Full-Stride Performance in Roswell, GA and a former NCAA Strength & Conditioning Coach.

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