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Training for Strength? The Top 3 Rep Schemes You Should Be Using

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“I just need to get stronger…ya know what I mean?” Jake, a college kid that I train, recently told me.

I took a slow sip of my Americano, anxiously waiting for the caffeine buzz to constrict my blood vessels and supercharge my brain.

“I hear you man. When I was your age, I made strength a priority. Your strength isn’t just dictated by your size, it comes down to planning and loading. ”

Jake looked up quizzically. “I’m not sure I follow. What rep schemes will help me build strength?”

You see, there’s a reason beyond just genetics that the willpower of some lifters is stronger than that of others, and that is the rep schemes and loading parameters that they use while lifting.

Yes, effort is important, but it’s imperative that your workouts are pointed towards maximizing your strength if you want to reach the top of the strength totem pole.

As it pertains to maximum strength, you need to have specific training methods combined with the willpower to go all-out in order to get as strong as possible.

“Why bro? I just want to have abs, arms, and pick up hot chicks…who cares if I’m actually strong?”

For starters, a base of strength improves your ability to train for all other qualities, from athletic performance to getting absolutely jacked.

Sure, you don’t need to be a powerlifter, but a periodic block of strength work increases your work capacity and makes everything else that you do in the gym more effective.

This means you’ll be able to lift more weight for more reps in order to build muscle, move lighter weights faster, and train with a higher density to maximize fat loss.


Types of Strength

There’s one huge reason strength reigns king in fitness circles: It provides the foundation of resources to accomplish all other training goals.

There are two primary types we refer to for building strength: relative and absolute strength.

Relative Strength is the amount of strength relative to body size. This reflects a person’s ability to control or move their body through space. All else being equal, smaller individuals have higher relative strength.

That’s why guys like 5’6” Darren Sproles juking, sprinting, and running through opponents are so exciting. Their relative strength is vastly superior to their competition, allowing them to sprint, jump, and run faster.

Basically, for athleticism and movement, relative strength reigns king as being relatively stronger helps you jump higher and run faster than your counterparts.

Absolute Strength is the maximum amount of force exerted regardless of muscle or body size. Greater amounts of absolute strength favor those with higher bodyweight and in general, larger individuals. 

Absolute strength favors individuals who need to generate large forces to overcome greater resistance, like a lineman making a drive block in football.

As you see, although the larger individual has greater absolute strength, they lag behind in relative strength, which is probably why you’ll see 150lb dudes knocking out 15 chin-ups without effort and 250lb dudes struggling to swing their way up for a set of five.

For all out strength and a foundation for building muscle, absolute strength is more important. 

Why This Matters

If you’re reading this, you want the best of all worlds—to get strong, shredded, and athletic. You want a body that is both show and go instead of being the dude getting juked out his shoes at a pick-up game and lookin’ like a damn fool!

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To maximally develop your body, it’s imperative that you be strong for your size and have absolute strength. That means including both heavy strength training with compound movements, and relative strength training with movements like jumps, sprints, and bodyweight exercises.

The Goal of Strength

The primary goal of strength is to enhance nervous system efficiency and activate the maximal number of muscle fibers during exercise.

In novice trainees, neural adaptations are the initial driving force in gains because of improved neural efficiency—how well the body transmits signals from the brain to the muscles. That’s why beginners, in the presence of a little effort, will get stronger regardless of the rep scheme.

This increased nervous system efficiency leads to a few important changes:

  1. Increase in muscle fiber recruitment: the number of muscle fibers being recruited during exercise.
  2. Increase in the speed of rate coding: the speed at which the body sends electrical signals from the brain to the muscles.

As a result of increased neural efficiency you’ll improve strength numbers, total body performance, and recruit the maximal number of muscle fibers for performance and getting swole.

What The Evidence Says

Maximum strength improvements occur with loads between 80-95% of 1 repetition maximum (1RM)1. This load should be trained in sets of 1-8 reps, depending on the trainees training age and ability to recover. This means bodyweight exercises, like chin-ups, are near-maximal efforts for some trainees.
Point is, you have to lift heavy to build strength, but you’re not limited to only barbell exercises.

Determining Training Load and Maxes

The number of reps you’re able to lift is inversely related to the load lifted. That means the higher the weight, the less total reps, and vice-versa.

To accurately assign training loads it’s imperative to understand the relationship between loads and repetitions.

Load: Load is the greatest amount of weight that can be lifted with sound technique and is either a 1-repetition max (1-RM) or the most reps at a certain weight, the repetition maximum (RM).

While most lifters don’t need to know their exact maxes it’s extremely beneficial to have an accurate depiction of your strength in order to accurately prescribe the correct training intensities.

If you ain’t assessin’, you guessin’.

Here’s the NSCA 1-RM Testing Protocol

As always, use a spotter with challenging exercises and stop at the point of technical failure. Testing your abilities is no reason to jeopardize your health and wreckin’ yo gainz, bro. 2

Now that you have your maxes, the following pictures help clarify the load and reps needed to focus on your training goals, according to the NSCA. 3

Pretty snazzy, right?

After all, you must train specifically towards goals to impose specific adaptions to your body. After you know the appropriate loading it’s time to select a rep scheme that challenges your body to adapt to greater challenges.

Top Rep Schemes for Strength Development

Straight Sets: 3×3, 3×5, 5×3, 4×4, 5×2

Following a dynamic warm-up and a couple ramping sets; straight rep schemes provide a good amount training volume at relatively high intensities to build strength.

Beginning lifters with less experience benefit from multiple heavy sets, as their fatigue less profound than multiple heavy sets for older, more seasoned lifters.

In other words, having a lifter using 85% 1-rm for 4×4 is a lot more demanding for someone with a 600lb deadlift using 510 pounds for 16 total reps than a newbie with a deadlift man of 185 lbs. using 155lbs for 16 total reps. 

Ramping up to 2,3,4 5rm (60-95% 1-RM)

Start with a moderate training load for the prescribed number of reps and build your way up (ascending loading) to the heaviest set with the reps.

As you increase the load, you “charge” the nervous system with consistently heavier loads.

Start with a moderate load and increase load by 5-10% each set, aiming to reach your heaviest set in 4-6 sets. Ramping sets work better for advanced lifters as straight sets with heavier loads provide tons of cumulative fatigue.

Novice trainees might not get enough of a training response to benefit from submaximal ramping sets, so plan accordingly.

Ascending Loading, Descending Rep Schemes: 5×4, 3,2,1; 4×6, 4,2,2

Ascending loads are a method that utilizes lighter weights with higher rep sets, while getting progressively heavier as the workout proceeds.

This helps lifters in two big ways:

First, the ascending loads prepare the lifter mentally for increasingly heavier loads. Heavy lifting as much of a mental battle as it is physical— you have to be prepared to struggle to reap the rewards of your efforts.

Second, as loading increases the body stays potentiated from the previous sets due to increased neural activation. As long as fatigue is managed with proper rest periods, ascending loading prepares the lifter for higher performance during each set and greater gains in strength.

The Down and Dirty on Strength

What you train for is what you get—at some point, emphasizing strength for a few months is vital to all training goals, whether its performance or aesthetics.

To optimize training you should have a good idea of your levels of strength to lift at appropriate weights and intensities.

To maximize strength gains train with heavy loads between 80-95% of 1-RM for multiple sets for the majority of training with multi-joint movements.

If you have athletic goals, incorporate movement skills and difficult body weight exercises to improve your relative strength concurrently.

Any of the rep schemes above will emphasize strength to improve your performance in the gym. As with any training program, you can’t be any geek of the street. You gotta be handy with the steel, and earn your keep. Mount up, lift heavy, and embrace the weight.

You’ll get incredibly strong, build a huge foundation for improving performance, and be able to lift more weight for more reps.  

Resources:

  1. Fry, A. (2004). The Role of Resistance Exercise Intensity on Muscle Fiber Adaptations. Sports Medicine, 10(34), 663-679. Retrieved October 15, 2015, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15335243
  2. Baechle, T. (2008). Resistance Training. In Essentials of strength training and conditioning (3rd ed., p. 396). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  3.  Baechle, T. (2008). Resistance Training. In Essentials of strength training and conditioning (3rd ed., p. 404). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
About the Author

Check out Eric's free ebook to build athletic muscle on his blog Eric Bach, CSCS, is a Strength Coach Denver, Colorado where he helps Pros improve their game and Joes look better naked with high performance coaching. He loves Wisconsin Football, #gainz, and mixing his creatine with espresso.

  • Jason Ward

    This is a fantastic article on strength development. I couldn’t help but notice you didn’t touch on Wave-loading though, I have personally seen remarkable increases in Strength with wave-loading principles and is my usual go to for a strength based phase. Just Wondering why you didn’t include it? I’m sure you have a reason and was just curious

    • Hey Jason, sorry for the delay! While I like wave-loading, I see too many lifters minimize rest periods with the protocol, and end-up making sup-par gains. It’s excellent if you stick with rest periods, but because it’s butchered 90% of the time, it didn’t make my cut.

      • Jason Ward

        Yeah that makes sense to me. I’ve noted the same thing from a some folks around my gym as well.