Powering Through Sets, Part 1: The Basics

What do you need to know about sets and reps?

In our previous series, we took an in-depth look at what makes the perfect repetition. We discovered that there are specific rep scales a bodybuilder can use to achieve specific goals. Ultimately, it would be up to the bodybuilder himself to determine which rep scale is most effective for him.

The beauty of bodybuilding is that everything is customizable, right down to what brand of protein bar you consume after a workout. There are no hard and fast rules and you can try anything and everything to get the results you want.

Bodybuilding’s greatest strength – flexibility – is also its greatest weakness.

The high customizability and the virtually “no holds barred” approach adopted by many bodybuilders young and old have made this particular sport somewhat intimidating and at times, frightening to newcomers.

What do you do when there are no rules? You find yourself following the lead of the most vocal individuals and many of these voices in the bodybuilding market aren’t exactly interested in helping people achieve their dreams.

This is why you need to go back to the roots, to the basics of classical bodybuilding.

Without a strong foundation that goes back to the most essential components of exercise, anyone can tell you what to do – and you wouldn’t know if his ideas were sound or not.

The Theories of Sets

We prefer using the word “theories” as the world of bodybuilding is constantly evolving and many of its classical postulates are being revised constantly by current studies.

While it is true that many of the classical foundations of effective bodybuilding remain unchanged today, it is still best to keep an open mind so you can adapt and change if needed.

  1. Higher Intensity Plus Low Reps vs. Low-Medium Intensity With High Reps – Many people think that HIIT or high intensity interval training is a “new thing” that is set to destroy classical fitness.

It’s actually one of the oldest methods around and professional bodybuilders such as Dorian Yates can attest to its age. When Dorian Yates was relatively young, high intensity training was already the rage in some parts of the bodybuilding community!

What is high intensity training all about?

As the name implies, high intensity training espouses an increased training intensity above all else. In terms of set count, the fewer the sets and reps, the better. When you’re operating at the highest possible intensity you can muster and tolerate, there’s no reason for you to increase your set and rep count.

Dorian Yates was famous for saying that if you can keep hitting a nail after it’s been driven into the wood, you’ll most likely destroy the thing it’s been designed to hold together.

Studies on the effects and general effectiveness of HIIT have been extremely promising. It appears that HIIT not only promotes muscular growth but it also raises the body’s natural metabolism or fat-burning capability twice or thrice its normal level.

The principles of HIIT can be applied to cardio exercises and whole body movements which makes it an excellent companion method for weight loss.

However, the bodybuilding communities around the world are divided when it comes to using it as the foundational method of building mass.

The main problem with this method is that it is extremely challenging to begin with and only the most naturally gifted bodybuilders would have the strength and power to train with the heaviest weights, day in and day out.

As a result, only a small percentage of bodybuilders stay true to the main tenets of high intensity training.

  1. Classical Overloading System – If Dorian Yates and the other champions of high intensity training all oppose “needless” addition of sets and reps, the opposite camp thinks otherwise.

The classical method of progressively overloading the muscles by adding resistance, sets and reps has been around for almost 80 years now and it appears that regardless of what science has to say, it’s here to stay.

What’s interesting about the classical overloading system is that it seems to be the preference of professional bodybuilders who have natural strength and lifting power – people who seem to be better suited for high intensity training.

When asked why they choose to perform more reps instead of just utilizing the heaviest resistance they can manage, the most common answer is that higher reps is more challenging in the long run than fewer reps at a higher intensity.

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