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Century Sets

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The Best Bad Idea Ever and 100 Reps of Awesome

You may not know this about me, but I’m a bit of a gambler. I don’t really mean in the casino-sense of the word (although I do love me some poker), but I definitely gamble when I make decisions, in almost any area of my life.

I truly favor high-risk, high-reward type situations.

This applies to training and nutrition as much as it does anything else: every now and then I get it into my head to do something that I think has the potential to be either incredibly stupid or utterly brilliant.

Some of my best ideas and creations occur this way (the feast/fast model, as an example). That said, it doesn’t always have a happy ending or result in a breakthrough; sometimes a crazy idea is just a dumb idea that you’re crazy enough to true.

Today, I’d like to talk about an idea that started out crazy, and turned out not to be frighteningly stupid. Quite the opposite, in fact—it’s turned out to be a way to hit new PRs, add some size, and even burn a little fat. In short, it’s got everything you want…if you’re willing to put in the work. And it WILL take work.

You ready? Drum roll please…

Introducing Century Sets

100 Reps of Pure Humility

Here’s how it works in brief: 100 total reps of a compound exercise with a predetermined percentage of your bodyweight (chart below).

This idea came about out of pure boredom, coupled with a lack of equipment. In a crowded gym with guys loitering on every piece of equipment, the only station available was, predictably, the squat rack. And while you can do nearly any exercise in a squat rack, I got to thinking—always dangerous—and pondered, what if you were to do a workout with ONLY squats? How would it work?

And I had to find out. What resulted is Century Squat, from which grew Century Sets using other exercises. Adam and I started playing around this last summer, when we grew a bit bored from testing all of the workouts in our book. You’re probably wondering why it’s taken me close to a year to post this? Well, frankly, because it’s been sitting in a file with 25 other half-finished blog posts and I’m finally just getting around to it. Geeze, cut a guy a break.

Anyway, as the name implies, you’re working with 100 reps; the goal is to hit that number in the fewest number of sets possible. But, there are caveats: no set should go over 20 reps; so, you’ll aim to complete in the fewest sets possible, with a minimum of five sets. When you can get 5×20, increase the weight next workout by 5%. Simple? Yes. Easy? Hell no.

Let me just make that as clear as I possibly can: unless you routinely do high rep work for multiple sets, this is going to suck. A lot. It won’t bury you, but it will humble you. 

Now, before we go any further, I’d like to address some things I know are bound to come up:

  • Ben Bruno is probably at least partly the inspiration for this. His stuff has certainly impactful to my training over the past year, and he does a lot of high rep work.
  • I’m aware that there are other systems that go by the name “century sets.” I don’t really care. I’m not coming up with a new name. If there can be more than one guy named John, there can be more than one protocol called Century Sets. Deal with it, because this.
  • I’m sure some will make the comparison to German Volume Training. There are certain similarities, of course: aiming for 100 total reps, and using the same working weight during all sets, increasing only when you can complete all reps on all sets. A few key differences:
    • We’re working with 5×20 instead of 10×10. So, really, higher reps with a lower percentage of 1RM.
      • Will this lead to a difference in training effect? Depends on your fiber type, and how you grow. For me, lower body tends to grow on multiple sets of high reps, but no difference in upper body.
    • With GVT, the number of sets is static. You hit 10 no matter what, then stop; you may wind up with less than 100 reps.
    • With Century Sets, the number of reps is static. You’re going to complete 100 reps, no matter how many sets it takes. Because, again, this.
    • I’m not German.

Now that we’ve got all that squared away, let’s move on to exercises.

Pick Your Century Sets Movement

The concept can be applied to any exercise, but it’s probably best to stick with the basics. In the chart below, the six of the big boys are outlined, along with suggested starting percentages.

century sets weight recommendations

Some basic guidelines for selecting starting weights for Century Sets

Of course, these numbers are just a jumping off point, but they seem to be a good place to start for anyone trying century sets for the first time. Admittedly, they’re recommendations based on experience from just seven subjects (Adam and myself, and then five clients), and n=7 isn’t exactly proven science. Still, in our testing, these seemed to allow for the greatest success rate over an 8-week period. Finally, while you can do multiple exercises Century-style during a given week or (for the truly masochistic) even the same workout, it’s better to start conservatively and work your way up—especially if you’re not generally accustomed to high volume workouts. Ya dig?

OTHER NOTES ON EXERCISE SELECTION FOR CENTURY SETS:

1 .With regard to pull ups/chin ups: use bands for assistance, not an assisted pull up machine. Obviously, this will make it much harder to get an accurate read on the percentage of your bodyweight that you’re using. So, select a band that allows you get at least 20 but no more than 25 reps on your first set. Adjust from there. You’re a smart bro, bro; you’ll figure it out.

2. For any pulling exercise, feel free to use straps. Your grip will be the limiting factor in any pulling exercise. You may want to go strap-free the first few sets to get some forearm/grip work, but once you have to terminate based on grip, use straps.

3. Speaking of straps, consider using Kroc Rows. I love Kroc rows, but this takes twice as long. Secondly, if you terminate a Kroc Row at 20, I’m not sure it’s actually a Kroc Row anymore, as you’re supposed to go to failure. So, I guess you’d just be doing a single-arm row “Kroc style.” Still, a good addition.

4. Trap Bar Deadlifts are a perfectly fine alternative to squats. And, honestly, I prefer. Picking stuff up off the ground has always been infinitely preferable to squatting with a bar on my back. When I first tried this, there was no trap bar available, and we had to just squat.

5. If you’ve got a bum knee or gitchy shoulder, proceed with caution. Look, experimental training is cool, but being an idiot is not. If you’re dealing with a messed up body part, do some testing before you jump in on this.

So, you’ve got the method, you’ve got the exercises. Let’s talk about execution.

Selecting Your Starting Weights for Century Sets

To illustrate how this works more clearly, we’ll use a hypothetical example. Let’s call him “Trevalin Dagmor” and say, hypothetically, that he’s a level 8 Human Paladin, who just so happens to wield a +5 Holy Avenger. Trevalin hypothetically stands at 5’8’’ and hypothetically weighs 185 pounds. As a completely unrelated aside, this particular hypothetical Paladin also bears a striking resemblance to me. Hypothetically.

Here’s what his weights would look like:

trevalin's century sets starting weights

Century Sets starting weights for your friendly neighborhood Paladin

Once again, just a jumping off point. If you’re particularly strong in one exercise or particularly weak in another, make adjustments to the percentages. As a gauge, you should be able to hit 20 reps on the first set.

My Century Sets Workouts

Okay, you got me. Trevalin is me. Or rather, I’m him. Well, he was my D&D character, which makes us the same person. So, I’m going to give you an example of my first experience with Century Sets, which, as I mentioned above, was with squats.

To begin, load a bar with equivalent of your body weight. At the time I came up with this, I was 190, but I loaded the bar with 185, because the gym only had one 2.5 pounds plate. Don’t be a stickler. I got under the bar, and proceeded to do my thang.

The aim, obviously, was to get 5 sets of 20 reps. I didn’t quite make it. And, in all likelihood, your first time out, neither will you. My first workout appears on the chart below. As a comparative reference, so does my third workout.

This sounds nuts, but TRUST me, your legs will progress like crazy.

roman's century sets workouts

Tow of Roman’s Century Sets Workouts

As you can see, my legs were not quite as accustomed to the higher volume as I would have liked them to be; my quads we getting a little sleepy during my 3rd set. In point of fact, it was really my lower back that was the limiting. It took me 8 sets to get 100 reps, but my low back was tired during the 5th set, which is why I terminated at 8 reps. I took a longer rest (more on that below), and was able to hit 14 on my next set. But, fatigue set in again. My 7th set was truly murderous, and by my 9th rep I had to bail out, despite my legs having a few more reps. I finished my last set of 4 reps with as much dignity as I could muster.

My second workout showed some improvement, but my third was when things really picked up. I hit 20 on the first 4 sets, but my back fatigued on set 5. I finished with a total of 6 sets; during the last one, I stopped at 7 simply because I was at 100, but definitely could have kept going.

By my fourth workout (July 23, 2012) I was able to finish in 5 sets; this was 8 weeks later, and my legs had grown about an inch, with just one day of training my quads. Since then, I’ve gone as high as 225 for 4 good sets of 20, and some straggler sets.

General Programming Considerations for Century Sets:

VOLUME: Is high. If you’re doing a lot of other high volume stuff, tone it down while you’re using century sets.

FREQUENCY: You could conceivably do this once per week, but you’d have to pay very close attention to recovery and it might put you under the bus. You could also do it once per month, but that wouldn’t really be enough to progress in a reasonable length of time. So, perform a workout of this kind once every two weeks.

REST PERIODS: Speaking generally, I have people rest about 3 minutes between earlier sets. If you can go with less rest, do so. As sets progress, you may need more recovery time. During my first workout, I took a 7-minute rest period to let my low back recover. So, no less than 90 seconds, no more than 8 minutes. That’s a huge range, so here’s a guideline: rest as much as you need to be able to execute at 75% on the next set. If you rest until you hit 100%, it will take too damn long and you’ll miss out on the metabolic effect.

Century Sets Wrap-up

They say that necessity is the mother of invention; perhaps it’s also true that insanity is the father of innovation. Despite being born out of lack of equipment and an apparent desire to humble myself, my version of Century Sets has proven to be great for building mass, increasing strength endurance, and burning fat. But they’re also fun, in that I-hate-myself kind of way. But, above all, it’s a challenging way to add a little spice to your program that just so happens to be effective. Win.

About the Author

John Romaniello is a level 70 orc wizard who spends his days lifting heavy shit and his nights fighting crime. When not doing that, he serves as the Chief Bro King of the Roman Empire and Executive Editor here on RFS. You can read his articles here, and rants on Facebook.

  • dadguy

    this is a huge strain on the nervous system and the muscle fibers. Done improperly there is risk of rhabdomyolysis, ease in to it. On squats for example, 100 x body weight on the bar is a goal to reach. The point is to complete 100 reps with minimal rest between sets ( 40sec ) with an achievable weight. For your first attempt try bodyweight squats, shoot for 15-18 minutes to complete them with GOOD form. I suggest only doing it with large compound movements; squats, deadlift, benching, dips, chin ups etc

    This shouldn’t take all day to do and should NOT be done more often than once a month per group for the average lifting athlete. Better to plan this set before a scheduled period of rest and active recovery exercises. You will feel it for the next few days.

    Over a 4 week period I incorporate these on week 4 for a particular muscle group. Week 1 being the heaviest weight with lowest rep (1-3). Century sets are excellent for multiplying muscle fiber through breakdown, and so too can hurt you if you over do it and dont include active recovery.

    Don’t be Rhadbo the Clown

  • GinosT

    Very nice post. I am a bit confused on the frequency though. Do you pick one of the exercises and you do it once 1 week (or once every two weeks) and then the rest of the days of the week you do your normal program? Or do you do one of the above exercises on a different day of the week, since they are working different body parts?

  • How is it possible to Squat your entire body weight loaded on a bar for 100 times?
    I’m 87Kg and I usually Squat 8 reps for 4 sets with 45Kg less than half my bodyweight.

    There’s absolutely no way I could Squat my entire body weight loaded on a bar 20 times in a row.

    Probably I understood wrong and you mean squatting for my bodyweight without load or is this workout just for already very strong people?

  • MV

    Roman-

    To confirm on the rest period guidelines when you say 75%……do you mean 75% of the previous set. In other words if my 3rd set is 16 reps on the 4th set I would allow for enough rest time to allow me to get at lest 12 on the next set?

    Thanks

  • Tom

    This sounds awesome! I haven’t trained legs properly for about a month as I injured my lower back. Think this will kick-start my legs again, going to do it today!

  • Wendy Russo

    Roman- How did I ever miss this one? I have been a fan of yours for a few years and purchased Final Phase Fat loss workouts one and two. they worked great and I followed them to a tee. but way too intense to keep up forever. I was thinking of recycling them again because my legs are going way down- and here it is! this pops up, and now I am going to start my first ever Century workout for legs this Saturday! I just called my leg workout partner to warn her!! Bring it on!!

  • Trying some this week. Made it through 5×20 on squats at 185 today. Thanks for the switch up!

  • Going to try this soon.

    Damn you in advance…

  • selven

    shits crazy!…thanks yo

  • ChuckS123

    I thought of something I call extended range of motion curls, although thousands of people probably had the same idea before me. I lean back, maybe against something, maybe sitting or laying on a bench. My hands are hanging down, holding dumbbells. I lift the dumbbells forward until my arms are parallel to the floor. Then I stand up and lean forward, maybe against something, maybe lay on my stomach on a bench. I keep my arms in front of me parallel to the floor the whole time. Then I do a biceps curl. What this does is run the muscles through a very large range of motion, under tension the whole time.

    You could do something similar with other exercises.

  • ontheregimen

    Did this on bench press today – fun stuff. Thanks Roman.

    Also, your BP to OHP ratio is absurd. I think 50% bw on OHP will be a stretch for me.

    • Hmm. Do you do a lot of overhead word? I actually OHP more than I do any sory of horizontal pressing.

      • ontheregimen

        Historically, no. But since I’ve been training seriously (1-2 years) I certainly have. We’ll see if some century sets can take my press to the next level.

        • I had the same thought. I did BP at 65% of my BW and thought it was almost easy (although I could only get 18 reps/set on the last couple.) Tried doing OHP’s at 60% of my BW last night. No way. Dropped to about 50% of BW and best I could get was 10 reps/set early on…ended with 6 rep sets! brutal.

  • Ashleigh Fernandez

    SICK, let’s do this!

  • Briana

    If you say 100% of bodyweight for a squat, do you assume you are lifting 100% without weight or do you consider that you aren’t lifting your entire body and therefore supplement with a barbell/dumbbell? (and if so, how much of BW are you lifting in a BW squat?)

    • That’s a good question.

      I mean, 100% of your body weight loaded on a bar.

      In a BW squat, you’re lifting about 80 of your weight. I don’t factor that in, simply because the goal is to get better at squatting, so we manipulate variables. Factoring in something that doesn’t change much doesn’t help.

  • bente_jente

    I had a goal of learning to love the Turkish Getup. I did one on each arm with my 16kg bell and then increased by one every day for a month. That was quite a few TGUs! But I did learn to love them.

  • TK

    Training for a fitness 5K team event with obstacles so did a 5 round circuit of 25# plate squats for 25 reps, 25 push-ups, 25# KB swings for 25 reps, 50 mountain climbers, 30 lunges, 25 TRX rows, 20# curl to press for 20 reps. Short and crazy hard

  • jacob

    Take a weight you can get 20 times for squats. Now squat it 100 times without setting it down.

    Worst…workout…ever.

  • “GI Jane”: 100 Burpees pull-ups not fun :)

  • Ken

    I was on a boring 5×5 protocol of compound lifts, and I tried a 10 minute 10×10 of hindu squats followed by 10 swings on a 20kg kb, followed by rest till the timer beeped the next minute. I was super sore the next day, but after that my legs felt really strong and my nagging knee pain disappeared for 2 weeks. I should have kept doing that every week.

  • Craig L.

    I experimented with a similar protocol I learned from John McCallum’s “Keys to Progress” called breathing squats. It’s 20 of the most brutal squat reps using a weight that has you feeling like you can’t possibly push another rep about half-way through. The legs respond great to high volume training, though, and it definitely showed.

  • scott

    yep good chit John, I have done this about once a week with deadlifts..135 100 reps in 7 minutes…age 50:) it works and it is very taxing…well done mate

  • Trevor

    Two thoughts, first, have you thought of using db goblet squats similar to Dan johns gobel squatting protocol? Second, do you think this would be good to add for a back squat day in an Olympic weightlifting program? Similar to using another form of squat specification like a smilie cycle, just once a week.

  • deansomerset

    Century kettlebell snatches with a 24kg bell. Currently hating my life, but pretty sure that the next workout will enable me to see through time and space. Only 4 more weeks of this hellishly dumb concept.

    • lol snatch test is brutal. But just think – soon you’ll be able to put some fancy letters behind your name.

      • deansomerset

        Lol. I already have BSc, CEP, CSCS, MES, I’ll throw SFG in there and maybe some OPP. You down with OPP? Yeah, you know me.

  • HL

    Did century squats this past Saturday. Female, started with 95lbs even though my BW is 150. 8 sets: 15/15/15/12/13/13/10/7. Rest was between 1 minute and 1:30. Was wobbling while I was stretching, walking, breathing… Sunday and Monday had some serious DOMS but well worth it and will absolutely be doing it again, hopefully in 7 sets. Then it’s to deadlifts.

  • Alex

    I tried doing a full body day once. Was trying to make up for taking the week off, so I did my full workouts for chest/biceps, back/triceps, legs, shoulders/abs all in a row. Obviously, I threw up after my first set of squats. JEEZUS FACK