Tag Archives: sets

Should You Train to Failure?

If you’ve been with me for a while, you know I preach not training to failure. However, there are a lot of training to failure proponents out there.

So who is right and who is wrong?

Of course I’m not going to throw myself under the bus, so let me elaborate on why I’m an opponent to training to failure, and what you should be doing instead.

Continue reading Should You Train to Failure?

3 Simple Ways to Add to Your Training Volume

One of the biggest factors in making gains in the gym is your training volume. With all of the troubleshooting you can do with your training programs, sometimes the recipe for success is simply doing more work.

training volume

You must incorporate enough volume in your training to produce a training effect, and the more experienced you are as a lifter, the more training volume you likely need.

For some set and rep guidelines, check out some of my past articles:

How Many Sets Should I Do Per Training Session?

What is the Best Rep Range For Building Muscle?

But expanding on those, what are some simple ways to increase your training volume to help induce hypertrophy gains?

#1 Drop Sets

This technique is popular among bodybuilders, but strength competitors and athletes can get a lot out of drop sets as well.

I tend to stay away from drop sets on my major lifts (with the exception of squats from time to time), but I employ drop sets frequently on my assistance lifts (especially direct arm work). The idea here is that for your last set, you reduce the resistance by 30% from your heaviest set and crank out as many reps as possible.

Drop sets are best used on lifts that have a low risk for technical error like rope-pushdowns and other tricep movements, curl variations, recline rows (and some other row variations like cable rows), hamstring curls, and other isolation movements. You can employ drop sets on compound lifts like bench press and squats, but they also produce the greatest injury risk, so you must maintain strict form and train smart.

Drop sets will only add a minute or two to your total training time but they add a significant amount of volume to your training and pump a ton of blood into your muscles shuttling vital nutrients.

However, use drop sets strategically and avoid using them on the same movements or muscles week in and week out.

#2 Load-Up Your Warm Ups

I’ve mentioned this before as a way to incorporate more bodyweight training and bring up weaknesses, but your warm-up is also a way to add more training volume.

For your warm-up sets on your main lifts, or even some of your assistance work, use higher reps than normal. Your overall max numbers on your top end sets may suffer a little, but that’s the price you pay if more volume is a solution to making more gains. After a few weeks, your body will adjust anyway so your strength loss will only be temporary.

This also accentuates another point I make with a lot of lifters. Instead of looking at your progress from a set to set basis, start viewing the bigger picture of total training volume. An extra 10-15 reps during your warm-up sets will likely add a lot more to your total work output (total pounds lifted) even if it means you sacrifice a few reps on your higher-end sets.

Jamie Eason

#3 Grease the Groove

I picked up this term through a mentor of mine, world class strength coach Zach Even-Esh.

It’s essentially active recovery, but with a more judicious approach. In between training sessions on scheduled off-days, you can use grease the groove to throw a bit more volume into your overall weekly workload. Keep in mind however that grease the groove training is meant to be short-duration (20-30 minutes) and low-impact.

For my own training, I keep a fairly strict schedule with Monday and Thursdays being upper-body days, and Tuesday and Fridays being lower-body days. Wednesdays and the weekend are my “off-days” but Wednesday is where I will typically get a grease the groove session in.

Since I emphasize training Primal style with heavy compound lifts, I don’t do much direct bicep work and sometimes my bodyweight work (outside of warm-ups) takes a backseat to barbell and kettlebell training. Wednesday’s grease the groove session then becomes my avenue for curl variations, push-up and pull-up training, and any other work that I may be neglecting.

You must be conscious of what movements you are doing on these days and the intensity in which you train, which is why I stress grease the groove being low-impact. Otherwise you jeopardize your recovery times from your main lifting sessions and the extra work you are getting ends up being more detrimental than beneficial.

— Tank

Implementing a Full Body or Upper Lower Split

The only two training splits I recommend are either full body or an upper lower split.

Body part splits and bodybuilding style training has its place for supplemental programming, but it’s ill-suited (as a primary focus) for the average gym rat or athlete who wants to get both strong and huge. Training full body or with an upper lower split recruits far more muscle, allows you to train much more frequently than body part splits, and will build both size and strength concurrently.

If you want a more detailed look into why I advocate against body part splits for the average gym rat, read this: Ditch the Body Part Split

upper lower split

I favor an upper lower split personally because I think it has a few advantages over full body training, but I’ll give you examples of both just so you can decide for yourself what suits your needs and schedule more.

Full Body

For a full body split, it’s pretty straightforward. You train your entire body each training session so no movement is off limits.

The disadvantage to full body training is that your training sessions will typically be longer than normal and your recovery times increased. You may also be hard pressed to fit everything you’d like to do in a single training session.

As a general rule, no matter what the split, I train my biggest/heaviest lifts first and follow that with assistance work and specialty training such as plyometrics and explosive movements. Several days a week, I will end with 20 minutes of high-intensity cardio.

Here is an example full body training plan:

  1. Big Lift (Bench, squat, overhead press, deadlift)
  2. Assistance (row variations, tricep and bicep work, hamstring and posterior chain movements, floor presses, squat variations, single-leg exercises, etc.)
  3. More Assistance (different movement from your 1st assistance exercise)
  4. Bodyweight or Explosive Movement (push-up and pull-up variations, dips, kettlebell cleans and snatches, barbell hang cleans, heavy push presses, plyometrics)
  5. Core Work and/or Conditioning (sprints, hanging leg raises, medicine ball throws, kettlebell swings, battle rope, weighted crunches, farmers carries)

* For some of your explosive work, if it’s really taxing, you may perform that as your second movement to reduce the possibility of technical errors and injury, as well as increase the actual training effect of the exercise. *

Training hard with a full body approach, you only need to train 3 days a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday for example), with some light to moderate active recovery sessions on your off days.

34f18_ORIG-friday_59_

Upper Lower Split

Upper lower splits are a progression from full body training and are what I typically use in my own training and with my clients. Your training sessions are split into upper body days and lower body days.

The upper lower split is more flexible than a full body split and allows you to hit your entire upper/lower body within a reasonable time frame (a typical training session would be about an hour). It also allows you to train more frequently, several times a week for both your upper and lower body.

Sticking with some of the considerations I laid out above (heaviest lift first, etc.) an upper lower split would look something like this.

Upper Body

  1. Big Lift (bench, or overhead press)
  2. Upper Body Assistance
  3. Upper Body Assistance
  4. Bodyweight or Explosive Movement
  5. Core Work and/or Conditioning

Lower Body

  1. Big Lift (squat, deadlift)
  2. Lower Body Assistance
  3. Lower Body Assistance
  4. Bodyweight or Explosive Movement
  5. Core Work and/or Conditioning

For an upper lower split, I take a 2 days on 1 day off approach. A sample schedule would be something like this:

Monday – Upper
Tuesday – Lower
Wednesday – Off Day/Active Recovery
Thursday – Upper
Friday – Lower
Saturday – Off Day/Active Recovery
Sunday – Off Day/Active Recovery

If you are looking for some set and rep guidelines for both full body and upper lower split programs, check out these two articles:

How Many Sets To Build Muscle?

What Rep Range To Build Muscle?

If you want an 8 week program centered around an upper lower split, check out Uncaging Your Primal Strength. You can download it from my programs page. It comes complete with an exercise list, rep and set guidelines, and built-in printable training worksheets.

Since its release, people from all over the world have been crushing the program, breaking strength plateaus, building muscle mass, and shredding body fat.

I also have a ridiculous deal going on for 3 of my eBooks, where you can get Uncaging, The Primal Mind, and Primal Strength Nutrition for a 30% discount. Don’t miss out before I come to my senses and raise the price back to face value!

If you want something even more dynamic and personalized, check out my online coaching portal: Primal Online Coaching.

By investing in online coaching, you will get 8 weeks of personalized programming, video critiques of your lifts, and a lot of interaction with me. Why not invest in the same training that is producing the nationally ranked athletes and record holders from the Primal Strength Gym?

Online Coaching Sign Up

— Tank

4 Ways to Bust Through Strength Plateaus

If you’ve been lifting long enough, then you’ve probably hit strength plateaus before.  It’s inevitable.

While it’s an awesome feeling to be breaking personal records (PR’s) day in and day out, the reality is that it’s just not sustainable.  Enjoy it while it lasts because as soon as you hit a sticking point, the process of getting past it can be damn frustrating.

strength plateaus

But it’s okay.  I’m here to help.  Here are 4 surefire ways to help you eclipse those strength plateaus and get back on the fast track of smashing PR’s.

#1: Supramaximal Adaptation Training

I came across this technique in one of the bibles of strength training called “Supertraining” by Yuri Verkhoshansky.

The technique is fairly simple and the logic is sound.  The idea is that you get your body familiar with training loads that are much greater than your current 1 rep max just by supporting the weight or training with the weight in a limited range of motion.

If you have ever done drop sets, the logic is similar.  In a drop set, you take a load and do it for a specified number of reps, and then reduce the weight and do another set.  On the lighter set, the weight feels much lighter than it actually is because your body just trained with a heavier load and your body is able to pump out more reps (usually).  Drop sets are normally used in high-volume training and focused on hypertrophy, not 1 rep maxes.

Supramaximal adaptation training is built around a similar premise, but is treated in a much different way than you would a drop set since we are going for pure strength gains.

For one, the loads that you use will be considerably higher than your 1 rep max.  I used this type of training to get over a sticking point in my squat, and the loads I used to do it were over 100 pounds more than my 1 rep max.

Secondly, you will probably use this type of training for several weeks before you attempt a new 1 rep max.  For my squat, I trained with “supramaximal” loads for 2 weeks before going for a new PR.  Unlike a drop set, you don’t simply train one set with a higher load, and then immediately go for a new record.  Patience is key, and take the time to let your body adapt.

Third, this type of training is not meant to be done with a full range of motion.  For some, just supporting the weight may get you to where you need to be.  When I used this to train for a new squat PR, I regressed to box squats with the higher loads to get my body adapted to the much heavier weight.  Then when it came time for my new PR, I ditched the box and went for it.  I set a new PR by 10 pounds.

strength plateaus

#2: Set New 2 and 3 Rep Maxes

If you get stuck on a 1 rep max, it is natural for you to keep going after it until you break it.  I wouldn’t fault anyone for that as long as you are doing it smartly.  Take the time to tweak your technique, change the intensity of your warm-up sets, or even take some time off.

But sometimes, none of this will work and you are truly stuck.  No biggie.  Instead of focusing on a new 1 rep max, focus on 2 and 3 rep maxes instead.  Don’t even mess with your 1 rep max weights for a while.

If you can set new 3 rep maxes for instance, your body will be much better adapted to handling a new 1 rep max.  This sort of falls in line with the Principle of Progressive Overload, but sometimes this basic principle gets overlooked when you are trying to crush some new weight.

Like the first tip above, be patient with this.  Just because you set a new 2 rep max doesn’t mean you should attempt a new 1 rep max immediately after.  Strength is a journey and a process, not a race.

#3: Tweak Your Warm-Up

This is one of the biggest mistakes I see people make.

Don’t get me wrong, you need to be properly warmed up to be at optimal performance and reduce your chance of injury.  But there is a fine line between being warm and overdoing it.

You can approach your warm-up 2 different ways when you are trying for a new PR.  You can decrease the number of sets you do, but increase the intensity on each set.  This will require you to make much bigger jumps in weight on your warm-up sets.  Here is an example for bench press:

  1. 135 x 6
  2. 185 x 6
  3. 235 x 4
  4. 265 x 2
  5. 285 x 2
  6. 305 x 1 (new PR)

The second approach is to keep your warm-up sets the same, but decrease the number of reps each set and use lower increments of intensities.  A lot of guys I see will hit 8 reps or so a set, but if you are trying to set a new max, you may be expending too much energy leading up to it.  By decreasing the number of reps, you are leaving “some gas in the tank”.  Here is an example (bench press):

  1. 135 x 4
  2. 165 x 4
  3. 185 x 4
  4. 225 x 2
  5. 255 x 2
  6. 275 x 1
  7. 295 x 1
  8. 305 x 1 (new PR)

If you are a slow starter and it takes you a while to get warm, this may be your best bet.  As compared to the first approach, your body is making an adaptation to higher weights more gradually with 2 extra sets, but you are still doing less total reps (18 versus 20).  While 2 reps may not seem like a lot, if you are going for a new 1 rep max, those 2 reps may be your saving grace.

deadlift strength training

#4: Take Time Off From Heavy Lifting

There is not much to say about this one really.  The title speaks for itself.  After repeated failed attempts (over the course of weeks I mean), your best bet may be to just take some time off.

This is not a cop out or a wuss move.  Your ability to break through the barrier may just be your body’s way of telling you to take a break.  Any smart lifter always knows to listen to his body.

I had to resort to this strategy last winter with my deadlift.  I couldn’t beat my personal best. After 2 months of trying other strategies I decided to just step away.  After 3 months of not lifting heavy I came back with a vengeance and beat my personal best by 30 pounds within 2 weeks of lifting heavy again.

So, bottom line?  Listen to your body.  If other strategies don’t work, lose the ego and take some time off.  Time off should be a minimum of 2 weeks, but could span months depending on how long you have been lifting heavy.

Wrapping Up

Keep in mind also that these are just examples, and you can tweak what I’ve laid out here but still stick to the premise and logic that I’ve given you.

So give these a try when you reach strength plateaus.  I’ve personally tried all 3 of these, and they work.  The key is being patient and methodical.  Strength is a journey and lifelong pursuit.

You may spend weeks or months trying to hit a new PR, but you will get there!  Stay strong and never, ever quit…

Evolve!!

— Tank

How Many Sets Should I Do To Build Muscle?

The range of moderate-high effort (working) sets you should be looking to hit during a training session is 12-16.  This does not include warm-up sets.

By working in the best rep range for muscle building, this would mean you are hitting around 100 reps per session.

strength training front squat

Using this set range, you are assuring yourself of a few things.

First, with proper rest in between sets, you will be getting in and out of the gym in an hour or less.  Long duration sessions do more harm than good, such as spiking cortisol levels, decreasing performance/technique, and increasing injury risk.  Besides, if you are really working your ass off like you should, an hour is plenty to get everything in.

Secondly, you will be getting enough volume in to build muscle, but not too much to where your recovery times are jeopardized.  This will allow you to train more frequently and spread your reps out over the week, as opposed to cramming everything into single sessions and going over the “hour long” rule.

Should you ever go above 16 sets?

There are only two situations where I could see you needing to go over 16 sets.

I talked here about how many days a week you should train, but what happens if you can’t do it?  Maybe you can only train 3 days a week.  Unless you are training with freakish intensity and have some crazy ass work capacity, 3 days a week may not be enough time to get in the volume you need to build huge amounts of muscle.

I’m not saying it can’t be done; quite the contrary, but some of you may need to cram in a few more than 16 sets during those 3 days if you aren’t getting the results you want.  With only a 3 day a week schedule, those 4 days of rest should give you time to recover enough if you can schedule your rest days strategically.

The other time I could see a need for more than 16 sets is if you are an advanced lifter (been training seriously for more than a couple of years).  Advanced lifters may need a bit more volume to build muscle, but this will also depend a lot on the exercises you are doing and the amount of reps per set.  Not all workouts are created equal.  A few more sets of bench press at 8 reps per set isn’t the same as a few more sets at 8 reps of bicep curls.  Be conscious of this and try to keep your reps per body-part to between 50-100 per week.

Now there are times when you could go under 12 sets however.

During de-load weeks for example.  And especially if you are going max effort.

Some days if you are training near your 1 rep max (RM) levels, you may not even hit double digits.  If you are hitting low intensity warm up sets, and making big jumps to get up to a few heavy singles, doubles, or triples, maybe your working sets don’t even eclipse 10.

So when you are planning your next cycle, plan on hitting 12-16 working sets a session.  Plenty of volume to build muscle and keep you fresh so you can protect your body and your gains!

Evolve!!

— Tank
NASM Certified Personal Trainer
Underground Strength Coach

What Rep Range Should You Use to Build Muscle?

For most of you out there looking to build muscle, the prime rep range you should be working with is 5-8.

Mind blowing I’m sure, especially if you read too many magazines or bodybuilding websites.

But for most of us who have ‘average’ genetics, are drug-free, and simply want to get jacked and ripped, a 5-8 rep range will do the trick.

The key here is pumping out enough volume with an ample amount of resistance, and you simply can’t do that by training with high-rep sets above 12.  To build both size and strength, you need to work with heavier loads.  The more weight you can use, the more muscle you will build.

rep range
Kirk Karwoski built this physique training sets of heavy 5’s.

I don’t know about you, but if I train high volume, I feel completely drained. This is because high-volume training can be really stressful on your central nervous system (CNS).

But by keeping your reps low and resistance high, not only will you be signaling your body to make strength gains, you will remain fresh as well. Plus, the trauma done to your body is less severe, meaning you can train more frequently.  The more frequently you can train, the quicker you will be able to build muscle.

“But Tank, if I cut back on my reps, I don’t feel a pump and I don’t even get sore.”

That’s a good thing my friend.  Getting a pump, while it feels nice, has nothing whatsoever to do with an actual training effect.  Sure your muscles are full of blood, but that won’t necessarily make you bigger or stronger.  Being sore doesn’t either according to scientific evidence.

You may look bigger after high-volume training, but like the pump, it’s just swelling of the muscles (scientifically termed sarcoplasmic hypertrophy).  This type of size increase does not result in any strength gains and some of that size will go away once you de-load.  You’d be far better served slapping on extra barbell poundage and building real muscle than swelling yourself up artificially.

When can I go over 8 reps?

There are times when you can aim for more than 8 reps, but these high-rep sets should only be a small part of your training.

If you aren’t performing compound lifts and are doing more isolation work like barbell curls or dips, then hitting a high-rep set here or there is fine.  In fact, to get bigger arms you may need to amp up the volume.

Even a high-rep set of 20 on the squat is effective at building bigger legs (provided your form and technique is spot on). Just remember the effect that this will have on your CNS; so don’t start crushing 20 reps sets multiple times a training session.

Never, ever do high-rep sets on deadlifts or Olympic style lifts. Your margin of error here is small and the chances of injury are increased.  It’s simply not worth it, and you should be training heavy here anyway.

As you get older and more experienced, maybe you go for more than 8 reps here and there. But what I said earlier about how sets of 5-8 keep you fresh longer applies here more than ever. As you get older, your recovery times will increase. Crushing your body with large amounts of volume is going to reduce your training frequency substantially the older you get. Depressing to think about if training is what you love!

Crank up the weight, tone down the reps, and stick to the 5-8 rep range.  Hit me up when you start to make killer gains.

If you want to know about the number of sets you should be doing per training session, click here.

Evolve!!

— Tank
NASM Certified Personal Trainer
Underground Strength Coach