For Personal Trainers! How To Program Sets And Reps For Serious Strength Training

Tough time training clients for maximum strength? Find the cutting-edge tools you need now in this Q&A with one of America’s top trainers!

When I hold seminars or talk one on one with other trainers, a commonly asked question concerns how to design set-and-rep schemes for substantial strength training. Some trainers confide that they don't where to start clients, and they don't know when and why to change it up over time.

If trainers are confused, imagine how clients and other trainees feel! They might as well choose those numbers with a roulette wheel.

Unfortunately, they're gambling with time and results, and the house usually wins. Any number of different factors will influence how and what set-and-rep schemes to choose for optimal results. Here are the most crucial!

1. The Duration of a Session

If you have a client for only an hour, you won't be able to assign 6 sets of 4 reps per exercise if you want to accomplish other objectives. This is a particularly big issue in collegiate strength and conditioning programs. The NCAA only allows a certain number of hours per week with an athlete. Sport, strength, and conditioning coaches have to share these hours.

In private training situations, a personal trainer might only have 30 to 60 minutes with a client.

Here at Cressey Performance, I never allow our business model to dictate our training model. Since every client has unique needs, every client should have a unique training program. Flexible training blocks allow us to break out of standard programming and create custom routines for every client.

2. Competing Demands

The more variety - plyometrics, conditioning, medicine ball work, etc. - you want to add to a program, the less volume and time you'll be able to spend on strength training. People have limited time and recovery capacity, so we can't just keep adding volume.

To understand this, think of an off-season baseball player.

When athletes arrive to train, lifting volume is high, throwing is no-go, movement training is twice per week, and med ball work is light. After a month, med ball training goes up and lifting comes down.

Then, at the beginning of January, med ball and lifting volume decrease while throwing volume increases. As the season approaches, we pretty much shelve the med ball. We train movement 3 times per week, throwing intensifies, and the players do more hitting.

A good routine focuses on the big picture, not just the sets, reps, and exercises per session. A great follow-up read on this topic would be my recent post, Weight Training Programs: You Can't Just Keep Adding.

3. Exercise Selection

If you're doing more sets, you'll want to do it on "money" exercises like deadlifts, not on "change" movements like curls. Moreover, certain exercises lend themselves better to higher reps than others. For instance, we never front squat anyone for more than 6 reps, because technical breakdown often occurs with fatigue. Nor would you want to do cleans for sets of 15!

Just call it a wrap on a particular exercise and move on if someone has already dropped the resistance on subsequent sets and form continues to deteriorate. Spend that energy on different exercises where technique can remain perfect even in the presence of fatigue.

4. Training Experience

As a rule of thumb, the more experienced an athlete is, the more sets and FEWER reps he'll need. At this point in my training career, I just won't grow strong on sets of five. Why? Here's another good follow-up read: Why I Don't Like the 5x5 Workout.

But beginners - well, they need more sets and reps to learn. No, clients shouldn't be doing 3 sets of 15 reps on every exercise. I often find myself teaching squat and deadlift variations with 4 sets of 5 reps; the load, however, is light enough that the lifter could do 10 to 12 reps if they chose to ignore me (at which point I would kick them out of my gym for insubordination).

In other words, those 5-rep sets are just technique practice.

5. The Training Goal and Client in Question

While lifting at more than 90% of an athlete's 1-rep max may be ideal for gaining strength, working at a percentage that high skews the risk-reward ratio toward risk in some populations. No need to have your mother-in-law banging out heavy singles.

Whether it's older folks, the injured, or athletes who have a lot more to lose by getting hurt than they have to gain by adding five pounds to their squat, consider each individual's situation. I always remind people that we lift weights to improve quality of life, not to brag about stats.

6. Fatigue: Impose or Remove?

During a "loading" week, volume will rise. If you're deloading, though, that volume will fall. Aside from beginner strength training programs, volume should never plateau for several weeks in a row.

7. Muscle Imbalance

In Part 1 (Bulletpoint 4) of my five-part Correcting Bad Posture series, I talked about how I like to use a 2:1 pull-to-push ratio for those with significant upper-body muscle imbalances. In addition to upping the sets, you can also use higher rep schemes. So, something like this would be an easy way to accumulate more volume:

    A1) Chest-Supported Row - Neutral Grip: 4x8
    A2) Low Incline Barbell Press: 3x6

Effectively, you're not only getting more total sets in favor of "postural balance," you're also getting more reps per set.

8. Neural Efficiency/Muscle Fiber Predominance

Some athletes - especially those who tend to have slow-twitch muscle fiber dominance - always seem to need more sets on their strength exercises. Oftentimes, a previous history of endurance training - whether it's high school soccer or a dedicated running career - has made them less efficient at tapping into high-threshold motor units.

The same holds true for female athletes, who always seem to need a little extra volume on strength exercises. It's almost as if females can't ramp up to a max as quickly as men. I don't think you necessarily need to increase reps per set, but definitely consider adding an additional set or two.

9. Metabolic Training

Some programs use a concept called "metabolic resistance training" to improve cardiovascular conditioning and increase energy expenditure to burn fat faster. Generally, in programs like these, you'll need more sets and higher reps to elicit this training effect.

10. Post-Injury Clients

With post-injury clients, keep the sets and reps low and gradually ease them back into more volume. While a non-injured client's sets and reps might be fluctuating up and down to impose and decrease training stress, a post-injury client would gradually increase sets and reps to match their capacity for loading at a particular time.

That said, post-injury clients need sufficient volume to maintain a training effect and keep their head in the game. For someone with shoulder pain, you might have to cut back on pressing movements - but you can really bump up the volume on horizontal pulling sets and reps.

11. Soreness Matters

With our in-season athletes, we want to avoid soreness at all costs. The easiest way to do this is to avoid changing strength exercises, but this isn't really feasible since most athletes get sick and tired of doing the same thing over and over all season.

So, we're careful about strategically substituting new strength exercises during in-season training. Keep things smooth by limiting sets and reps in the first round of a new training program. Let's say that we're doing front squats in-season. We'd go something like this:

  • Week 1: 1×3 reps
  • Week 2: 3×3 reps
  • Week 3: 3×3 reps
  • Week 4: 2×3 reps (deload)

This leads me to my final point...

12. Depending on the Season

If an athlete is in-season, less is more. I prefer to have our athletes leave the gym feeling refreshed after their training sessions. They might be completely finished with a lift after only 8 to 10 sets of strength exercises. You can add more sets and reps during the off-season.

While there are always more considerations, these 12 are probably the most crucial to determining the optimal sets and reps of a strength-training program!