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.
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…
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…
I had to find out. What resulted is Century Squat, from which grew into 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.
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:
(Just checked my 23 and me and it turns out I’m still not German.)
Now that we’ve got all that squared away, let’s move on to exercises.
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.
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?
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 glitchy 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. If you have a messed up back, you should check out this article.
So, you’ve got the method, you’ve got the exercises. Let’s talk about execution.
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:
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.
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 the 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.
As you can see, my legs were not quite as accustomed to the higher volume (like when I first did another 20-rep squats protocol) 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 factor.
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 I 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.
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 the 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.
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.