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Background:

There's constant talk about how low rep-ranges favor strength gains, while high rep-ranges favor size gains. At least, that's the general consensus, it seems.

During my last few sessions, I've stepped down my rep-range from 3x8 and into 5x5. But I was thinking...

Question:

We generally agree on the effects of adjusting your rep-range, but what about adjusting the set-range?

For instance, what would be the effects of going from a 3x3 scheme, to a 5x3 or an 8x3 scheme? (For the record, that's sets x reps. Just to prevent any possible confusion.)

In this case, one might probably lift pretty heavy for the first 3-4 sets (assuming proper warm-up before first set), and then drop the weight slightly while still doing 3 reps every time.

Would you once again be doing hypertrophy training?

  • There's a study floating around showing something like 80% of the benefit, maybe more, from 1 set vs 2. After three the benefits dropped considerably. Excluding warm up sets, I think this is where the magic number number of three keeps coming from (in terms of sets). – Eric Feb 20 '15 at 15:23
  • @EricKaufman - That's actually pretty interesting. Any chance you have a link to said study? – Alec Feb 20 '15 at 18:01
  • @Alec See my answer. Follow the link to EXRX there and you will find the reference to that and other similar studies. – Mephisto Feb 20 '15 at 23:13
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There are a bunch of sound scientific studies on that question (Hans et al. 2000 / Rhea et al. 2002 / Bors et al. 2001 / Wolfe et al. 2004) essentially suggesting that performing more than 2~3 sets offers little additional progress.

I took those references from this nice summary in EXRX with many scholar references and many more details.


Remark: Perhaps many 3 rep sets with submaximal loads might elicit neural adaptations (you are essentially practicing a movement pattern, so who knows). But working out with 3RM loads is no joke, and performing many sets in a row is probably asking for injuries. Poor form in the last set of a 12RM load is not uncommon, whereas poor form under a 3RM dumbbell may send your shoulder directly to the surgeon table. My (humble and amateur) opinion is that anyone working in the very low rep range would better stick to the Bill Starr - alike systems since they have stood the test of time, e.g. Starting Strength or Stronglifts 5x5.

  • There was too those recommendations from the American College of Sport Medicine I don't find now. They basically said (if I remember well) it is better to do one or two sets per exercise and so having time to perform many exercises in the same workout, than doing multiple sets of a few exercises. – Mephisto Feb 20 '15 at 23:19
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    suggesting that performing more than 2~3 sets offers little additional progress - It says that it offers little additional hypertrophy, but how about when you're doing sets of 3 reps? Then hypertrophy isn't really the goal. – Alec Feb 20 '15 at 23:22
  • @Alec In my amateur and unreliable opinion, I would say that as long as loads are submaximal, many sets may elicit a faster neural adaptation. But if you deal with 3RM loads, the last sets of a series of many sets may lead you to dangerous poor form. And due to psychological reasons, you won't put all your effort in the first sets of a series of many. – Mephisto Feb 20 '15 at 23:46
  • @Alec I am no expert. I am far from that. Stick to Bill Starr and similar programs that have stood the test of time if you want to train for strength in the low rep range. Reg Park, Starting Strength, SL5x5... – Mephisto Feb 20 '15 at 23:51
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This answer will be quite speculative.

There are basically two types of muscle fiber, slow twitch and fast twitch, where the latter are more powerful but more sensitive to fatigue. I guess if you're lifting a large part of your one rep max, you won't be able to lift the weight anymore when your fast twitch fibers are fatigued enough, i.e. whenever you are lifting the heavy weight, it should load your fast twitch muscles, i.e. as long as you can lift the heavy weight, you're actually causing microtears to the "right" fibers and signaling growth.

Eventually of course, you will cause such amounts of microtears that you will not be able to recover from it anymore.

Thus, no 3x8 should not be similar to 8x3 because it's the same volume, it will still be strength-focused training.

If you do something like 8x3 and start to lower your weight because you can't lift the weight anymore, you are probably actually moving the focus to your still "fresh" slow twitch fibers.

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I don’t know of any scientific studies to prove out a specific range of sets or reps that induce hypertrophy. Although your background info stated a generally accepted consensus for training, we are all individuals, and, we all react to training stress differently. Changing the sets and reps is definitely a good idea, if for nothing else, to avoid a training plateau and stagnant progress. But, weight training is just one aspect for increasing muscle mass (hypertrophy). That’s why it’s so difficult for some, and, easy for others to gain mass.

In this case, one might probably lift pretty heavy for the first 3-4 sets (assuming proper warm-up before first set), and then drop the weight slightly while still doing 3 reps every time.

What you describe is a variation of a training technique known as strip sets. Again, strips sets are another mechanism that can be used for training variation. One common way to perform them is to perform each set to “failure”, then, strip some of the weight and immediately perform another set. That way, you are able to increase training volume while trying to move beyond the point of failure. This is not to be confused with super setting because the same exercise is still being performed. I can’t stress enough the importance of training variation to avoid plateaus. Strip sets are just one of the methods you can use to avoid them.

Would you once again be doing hypertrophy training?

I think the only real way to know for sure is to obtain a muscle biopsy so the underlying cells can be adequately examined. Probably not worth doing unless you’re a professional athlete.

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