Here's an older article of mine that appeared in "Iron Man" some years ago. It's still pretty good... and it's still one of my favorite ways to train.
Big Weights...Big Sets
A Fresh Approach To High-Volume Training
If you have read any of my past articles, then you understand that I am a big proponent for basic, brief and intense training sessions, especially for building muscle mass. It's the type of training that has proven itself over the years to be extremely effective for a large majority of lifters.
Also, you might have noticed that at times I have touted another form of training to be very effective, especially if you are after a combination of size and raw strength. That form of training is high-set, low-rep lifting.
Unfortunately, most bodybuilders and powerlifters perform way too many sets and reps in their training. When you lift with high sets and high reps, you are asking for trouble. This type of training does at times produce a large amount of muscle mass (especially for setroid users), but this muscle mass will always be unproportional to their strength. And muscle without strength is nothing but an out and out joke. As for drug-free lifters, this type of high-rep training can also wreak pure havoc on cortisol levels, and this is definitly not what you want if you ever plan on having an ounce of muscle on your frame.
As for high-set, low rep training it is something quite different. This type of training, like no other, can produce phenomenal strength and size gains.
If you doubt it, then consider some of these examples of bodybuilders, powerlifters and strength athletes who achieved awesome results with this type of training.
Charles Poliquin. Strength-coach extraordinare Charles Poliquin has said that he never really got his arms to grow (that's right, his arms) until he began to use a regimen of low-rep and high-set training. He says that the key is the numerous sets. In fact, Poliquin (who has a very large pair of guns) says that he averages 3 reps per sets.
Brooks Kubik. Author of the popular strength training book "Dinosaur Training" (see the article by the same name in Ironman's Ultimate Guide To Building Muscle Mass), Kubik, a past national champion in the bench press, says that he got the best results in terms of both size and strength when he performed numerous singles on one exercise. For example, he would often perform 20 sets of singles in the bench press with about 85% of his one-rep max. He also likes the same type of training for the squat.
Doug Hepburn. Considered by many, including himself, to be the strongest man who ever lived (due to the fact that he never used any anabolic steroids), Hepburn was a collosus whose specialty was the bench press. For training the major lifts, Hepburn would work up in singles until he reached a weight he could handle for 3 to 8 singles. Once he could acheive 8 singles with the weight, he would add poundage at the next workout. After the singles, he would perform 5 sets of 5 reps on the same exercise. His reps never got higher than 5 and he had tremendous strength and mass combined.
Pat Casey. The Babe Ruth of powerlifting, Pat Casey was the first lifter to bench press 600 pounds, the first to squat 800 pounds and the first powerlifter to total 2000 pounds. Casey enjoyed training the bench press with lots of singles (in either flat bench presses, bottom-position benches or midrange partials), followed by heavy sets of threes. Afterwards, Casey would perform more reps for a pump but the foundation of his training was based on high-set, very low-rep work.
Magnus Samuelson. The World's Strongest Man winner for 1998, Magnus's approach to strength training is "old school" in that he trains much like Hepburn and Casey. On all his major lifts (squats, deadlifts, benches, and overhead presses), Samuelson performs five sets of singles, starting with something "heavy" but not too heavy and works up over his five singles until he reaches about 95% of his max. After this, he performs three progressively heavier sets of 5s until he reaches a near max set of five reps.
Lee Priest. Probably more familiar to Ironman readers than the above men, Priest is one of the few modern-day bodybuilders who still adheres to this type of effective training in that he believes in both extremely heavy weights and lots of sets. Priest averages about twenty sets per bodypart and an average of 4 to 6 reps for each set.
If you didn't believe in this type of training before, then you should at least be getting somewhat of an idea that it can be very effective. No need to fear, however, once you try any one of the below routines it is highly likely that you will never go back to any other type of training again.
Probably the most popular form of low-rep training among the "old-timers", this training is highly effective at making a muscle neurally stronger.
I believe the best way to incorporate singles is either in the trend of Doug Hepburn or Brooks D. Kubik. On your lift of the day, start off with a weight inwhich you absolutely know that you can get at least three singles with. Remember, it's better to start off too light than too heavy. Make sure you warm up sufficiently for the lift using very low reps. After about a five minute rest after warm-ups, go directly into the singles. Perform a single, rest five minutes, and then perform another single. If you manage to get eight singles, then stop the lift and add two and a half to five pounds at your next workout and start all over again.
If your goal is simply to be stronger, then stop the workout at this point. If you're after muscle mass to go along with the strength, then rest five minutes and perform three to four sets of three to five reps, with minimal rest in between these sets.
Below is an example workout that you could use that incorporates this approach to training.
Day One: Chest, Arms
Bench Press- 3 to 8 sets of 1 repetition, followed by 3 sets of 3 reps. Utilize the method described above.
Incline Dumbbell Press- 5 sets of 3 reps.
Barbell Curls- 3 to 8 sets of 1 repetition. Utilize the same technique as with the bench presses but eliminate the triples.
Close-grip Rack Lockouts- 3 to 8 sets of 1 repetition. This exercise will give you even more tricep involvement than regular close-grip benches, plus it takes the chest out of the movement so that you don't end up overtraining your pecs.
Day Two: Off
Day Three: Legs
Squats- 3 to 8 sets of 1 rep. To be performed the same as the first workout. Do not substitute another exercise for regular squats, they can't be beat as an overall mass-booster. Also, don't sell yourself short by doing a partial or parrallel squat. Go rock-bottom for the best benefits.
Front Squats- 5 sets of 3 reps. In order to get maximum quadricep involvement into the workout, use these instead of the regular squats for your follow-up triples.
Day Four: Back, Shoulders
Weighted Wide-Grip Chins- 3 to 8 sets of 1 rep, followed by 3 sets of 3 reps.
Close-grip Bent-over Rows- 5 sets of 3 reps. Use an underhand grip on these in order to get more lat recruitment, as opposed to mid-back, out of the exercise.
Standing Military Press- 3 to 8 sets of 1 rep.
Day Five: Off
Day Six: Off
Day Seven: Repeat Day One
After four to five weeks of the above workout, if you want to try something new, then use the same workout, but stick more to Kubik's approach. Drop the poundages you are using by about 10% and try performing 15 to 20 singles on all of the major exercises.
Accelerative Low-Rep Training
This type of high-set, low-rep training is becoming popular among strength coaches in various sports, powerlifters, and olympic lifters. It only makes sense that bodybuilders should start taking advantage of it as well.
Powerlifting super-coach Louie Simmons uses a form of it to acheive the awesome results he gets with his lifters. Another proponent of this training is strength/bodybuilding coach Charles Staley. His method is similar to what I prefer when it comes to building muscle mass. It's probably the method that would best be preferred by the majority of Ironman readers as well.
Basically, for accelerative low-rep training, the force produced by each rep is more important than the amount of reps performed in each set. More sets are performed to compensate for the lack of volume. Let me explain.
Let us assume that you can perform 10 reps in the bench press with a weight that is approximately 70% of your 1 rep maximum, and you set about to do so at your next workout. After your first set, you rest several minutes and then perform another set of 10 reps, just barely getting all 10. After a few more minutes, you perform a third and final set and this time you also manage, but only barely, 10 repetitions.
You just performed a total of 30 repetions. Now, what if I told you that the better way to perform those 30 repetions was to perform 10 sets of 3 reps (accelerating as fast as possible on the positive portion of the rep) with the same weight, instead of 3 sets of 10. With 10 sets of 3 reps, you perform the same total workload but each rep is much more productive because you are able to put maximum force production into each and every rep. This is what builds raw strength, in addition to muscle. The 3 sets of 10 reps might build muscle, but it also makes the lifter very slow. Accelerative training builds explosive power and gives you the same, if not better, hypertrophy response than the high reps.
You might be scratching your head a bit at this point, but don't worry. Give the below routine a try and I promise you'll be a believer.
Day One: Chest, Lats, Shoulders
Bench Press- 10 sets of 3 reps. Use 70% of your one-rep maximum, taking no more than one minute of rest in between each set. Use about a 2 second negative, pause on your chest for no more than one second and then explode to lockout.
Wide-Grip Chins- 10 sets of 3 reps. Stay with the same 70% rule as above and perform each set with the same rep cadence.
Dumbbell Bench Press- 5 sets of 5 reps. These sets should be heavy. Rest two to three minutes between each set.
Bent-Over Rows- 5 sets of 5 reps. Same scheme as the Dumbbell Benches above.
Seated Behind-The-Neck Press- 10 sets of 3 reps. 70% of your one-rep maximum should be used once again.
Day Two: Off
Day Three: Legs, Hips, Lower Back
Squats, alternated with Deadlifts- 10 sets of 3 reps (each exercise). You might have thought the first workout was easy, but you'll be feeling the pain after this one. Use 70% of your 1 rep max on both exercises. Perform a set of squats, rest 1 minute, perform a set of deadlifts and so forth. Never take more than one minute between each set.
Hack Squats- 8 sets of 2 reps. Since squats don't work your lower quadriceps very hard, perform these as well. Once again, use 70%, but with 2 fewer sets and only 2 reps per set.
Day Four: Off
Day Five: Arms, Calves
Barbell Curls- 10 sets of 3 reps. Once again, use approximately 70% of your one-rep maximum. Make sure that you use 70% of a "no-cheat" maximum, in other words, whatever you can curl in strict form.
Lying Barbell Extensions- 10 sets of 3 reps. Using the 70% rule, alternate these with the above exercise. In other words, perform a set of curls, rest 30 to 60 seconds and perform a set of curls, alternating back and forth between the two until you have completed all 10 sets of each exercise.
Standing Calf Raises- 10 sets of 3 reps.
Day Six: Off
Day Seven: Repeat Day One
The 3x3x3 Method
This approach will probably seem a bit more conventional to most bodybuilders and, thus, easier for them to get used to than the previous two approaches.
The premise is quite simple. Perform 3 different exercises for each muscle group for 3 sets of 3 reps each. If you haven't been acheiving any results with the more popular approach to volume lifting, high reps, then this method might be just what you need.
This method also allows for more exercises for each bodypart and would probably result in the most muscle growth if you've already used the prior approaches for a few months.
Here's a sample workout:
Day One: Chest, Shoulders
Pause Bench Press- 3 sets of 3 reps. For your first exercise, perform 3 progressively heavier warm-up sets of 3 reps, followed by your work sets with an all out weight. Pause on your chest for a count of 2 seconds on every rep.
Incline Bench Press- 3 sets of 3 reps. You shouldn't need any more than one warm-up sets before your work sets on this exercise.
Dumbbell Bench Press- 3 sets of 3 reps.
Seated Behind-The-Neck Press- 3 sets of 3 reps. Perform at least two warm-up sets.
Standing Dumbbell Press- 3 sets of 3 reps. It's always good to integrate some type of standing exercise into your shoulder training. This helps to build more functional strength in addition to just large muscles.
Dumbbell Lateral Raises- 3 sets of 3 reps.
Day Two: Legs
Bottom-Position Squats- 3 sets of 3 reps. For this exercise, set the pins in the power rack so that you have to start the movement from a rock bottom position. After the first rep, lower slowly and pause on the pins before beginning the second rep. This exercise will probably burst your ego the first time you try it since you will have to use so much less weight than what you normally handle. Don't let that discourage you. You won't find a more productive exercise.
Front Squats- 3 sets of 3 reps.
Leg Presses- 3 sets of 3 reps. I don't generally reccomend this exercise since it has zero carryover effect toward your squat or building real-world strength. It is good, however, at targeting your quadriceps.
Standing Calf Raises- 3 sets of 3 reps. Most people don't train their calves heavy enough, thus you should get a burst of growth from training them in this manner.
Seated Calf Raises- 3 sets of 3 reps.
Donkey Calf Raises- 3 sets of 3 reps.
Day Three: Off
Day Four: Back
Wide-Grip Chins- 3 sets of 3 reps. Most lifters should have to use some weight strapped to their waist in order to train heavy enough for this one.
Close-Grip Bent Over Rows- 3 sets of 3 reps. Use an underhand grip on these to maximize lat involvement.
Seated Pulley Rows- 3 sets of 3 reps.
Day Five: Arms
Barbell Curls- 3 sets of 3 reps. Why is it that very few lifters still do curls with a straight olympic bar? It's a shame because this exercise is about as good as they get.
Lying Dumbbell Extensions- 3 sets of 3 reps.
Dumbbell Curls- 3 sets of 3 reps (each arm).
Close-Grip Rack Lock Outs- 3 sets of 3 reps.
E-Z Bar Curls- 3 sets of 3 reps.
Straight-Bar Pushdowns- 3 sets of 3 reps.
Day Six: Off
Day Seven: Repeat Day One
Summing It Up
There you have it. Three very good routines for adding a great combination of both size and strength utilizing low reps and multiple sets. Of course, I could have added more routines, but the three above are a good foundation to start with. My advice is to give these workouts an honest try. After that, you should be hooked.