This is an excerpt from Overload System for Strength, The by Christian Thibaudeau & Tom Sheppard.
Old-school lifting was all about getting stronger, and while you certainly can get stronger by training with slightly higher repetitions (provided that you gradually add weight to the bar over time), training with lower reps with a higher proportion of your maximum is the most effective way to boost strength. That doesn’t necessarily mean 1 to 2 sets or even 3 reps, though (which would be called the maximum effort method when using weights at or above 90 percent of your maximum), but it certainly means using weights at or above 80 percent of your maximum.
A lot of recent research shows that muscle gained from high reps and muscle gained from low reps is the same. However, the research shows that training with heavier weights leads to significantly more strength gains than when using lighter loads, even if muscle growth is the same. This is unsurprising because your capacity to produce force does not depend solely on the amount of muscle that you have. Neurological factors are at least as important as well as protective mechanisms like the Golgi tendon organs (GTOs).
Training with heavier weights has a greater impact on the neurological factors than using lighter loads. Basically, you need to lift heavy to gain as much strength as possible. This is in accordance with the specificity principle, which states that you improve the most in the type of work that you train. Or as Charles Poliquin said: “You become stronger in the rep range(s) that you train.”
While doing sets of 1 to 2 reps will certainly make you stronger, it is not actually the best way to build strength by itself. Sets of 1 to 2 reps (92.5 to 100 percent of your max) are the best at improving your capacity to demonstrate the muscle strength potential that you have. It is the zone that has the greatest impact on fast-twitch fiber recruitment, firing rate, and intramuscular coordination. It is also where you have the most effect on reducing the protective force inhibition by the GTOs, but it’s not the zone that is the most effective at increasing your strength potential. The reason is that, in most cases, it is not conducive to stimulating muscle growth. That’s because there is not enough mechanical work per set, and if you do enough sets to get a proper amount of mechanical work, it will lead to neurological fatigue pretty quickly (it would require a good 15 sets of 1 rep or 8 sets of 2 reps with maximal weights).
The best zone to develop strength is the range of 3 to 6 reps (80 to 90 percent of your max). That’s where you have enough load to have a significant impact on the neurological factors involved in force production and have sufficient mechanical work to trigger muscle growth. Sets of 8 to 12 reps (60 to 75 percent) provide more mechanical work per set and can thus lead to slightly more muscle growth, but the effects on the neurological factors are much lower.
That’s why in this system we favor loads in the 80 to 90 percent range (for full-range movements), with occasional sets or phases in the 90 to 100 percent range.
For remedial work (targeted or isolated exercises), higher reps are to be done since they are only used to build muscle and improve tendon resilience. We actually want to minimize the neurological stress on these exercises. That’s why sets of 8 to 12, as well as much higher rep work (up to 50 reps per set), are used for these movements.
For the multijoint movements (main lifts and assistance work), we want most of our sets to use 3 to 6 reps, with the occasional inclusion of sets of 1 to 2 reps (if you want to focus more on strength) or 7 to 8 reps (to focus on hypertrophy while still gaining some maximal strength). Usually, sets closer to 8 reps are only done on assistance exercises.
Here are some of the loading schemes that I find to be the most effective with this system of training:
Ramping Straight Sets
You perform 3 to 6 sets with a designated number of repetitions. You start more conservatively and add weight from set to set until you reach your top weight.
Each wave consists of 3 sets (with a normal rest between sets), and each set within a wave uses more weight but less reps. The first wave is more conservative; the rate of perceived effort (RPE) is around 8. The second wave is slightly heavier than the first wave (RPE 9). Usually, I do a warm-up wave before the work waves (same 3 set progression as the work wave but with an RPE of 6 to 7). Waves work best with low to moderate reps. For example: 7-5-3 wave, 6-4-2 wave, 5-4-3 wave, 5-3-1 wave, 3-2-1 wave.
Here you use a 3 to 6 set progression where you add weight from set to set but reduce the reps to keep the RPE stable (RPE 8 or 9). The more sets in a pyramid, the lower the RPE should be. For example, if a pyramid has 3 or 4 sets, you can use an RPE of 8.5 to 9, but if you have 5 to 6 sets, it is better to keep RPE at 7.5 to 8. My favorite variation of this method is the 5-4-3-2-1 countdown, but you can use pretty much any variation where you reduce the number of reps per set by 1 from set to set. You can even use a 2 rep decrease if you use less sets—for example, 6-4-2; 5-3-1; 7-5-3; or 8-6-4.
Here you perform 4 to 8 work sets for an exercise, adding weight on every set but only decreasing the reps every 2 sets. The first set with a weight is easier (RPE 7 or 8) while the second is harder (8 or 9). You can do something like this: 8-8-6-6; 6-6-4-4; 5-5-3-3; 3-3-1-1; 8-8-6-6-4-4; 6-6-4-4-2-2; 5-5-3-3-1-1; or 4-4-2-2-1-1.
This is very similar to wave loading. In the ascending portion of the pyramid, you add weight while decreasing reps; then, in the descending portion of the pyramid, you do the opposite. Normally, the ascending portion is considered easier (RPE 8), and the descending portion uses a bit more weight (RPE 9). Here is an example:
- 3-sets double pyramid: 8-6-8; 7-5-7; 6-4-6; 4-2-4; 3-1-3
- 4-sets double pyramid: 8-6-6-8; 7-5-5-7; 6-4-4-6; 5-3-3-5; 4-2-2-4; 3-1-1-3
- 5-sets double pyramid: 8-6-4-6-8; 7-5-3-5-7; 6-4-2-4-6; 5-3-1-3-5; 3-2-1-2-3
- 6-sets double pyramid: 8-8-6-6-8-8; 7-7-5-5-7-7; 6-6-4-4-6-6; 5-5-3-3-5-5; 4-4-2-2-4-4, 3-3-1-1-3-3
These were already explained in-depth in chapter 1, but as a reminder, clusters are sets of 3 to 6 reps where you perform each repetition as a single and have 20 to 60 seconds of rest between repetitions. Typically, we do only 1 to 2 work sets when using clusters.
Rest and Pause
I really love heavy rests and pauses to develop strength while getting more hypertrophy than with regular low-rep sets. You start by doing a normal set, then rest anywhere between 10 and 30 seconds (depending on the movement), and you get as many solid additional reps as you can with the same load. This counts as one set. While for pure hypertrophy plans you can start with 8 to 12 reps then do your additional reps, in the scope of this program, the initial portion of your set should use 4 to 6 reps, after which you shoot for an additional 2 to 3 reps. The initial portion of the set should be challenging, but you shouldn’t reach failure or the point where you have to significantly grind the weight (RPE of around 8.5); on the second part of the set, you get as many solid reps as you can (RPE 9 or 9.5). Just like clusters, I prefer to do only 1 to 2 sets like this for an exercise, but you can do 1 to 2 normal sets before your rest and pause set.
In this method, you perform 2 to 3 pairs of sets. The first set in a pair is done for 1 or 2 reps with a heavy but not maximal load (RPE of around 8); the second set is done for moderate reps (for us), or 3 to 7 reps. Three rules apply when using this method:
- The first set of the pair (1 to 2 reps at roughly 87.5 to 92.5 percent) remains the same for all the pairs.
- The second set of the pair should get heavier from wave to wave.
- Rest 2 minutes between the sets in a pair and 3 to 4 minutes between pairs.
Good examples would be 1-6; 1-5; 1-4; 1-3; 2-8; 2-7; 2-6; and 2-5 pairs.
These are examples of my preferred loading schemes. Feel free to use different ones as long as they fall in the proper rep range and you don’t exceed your overall set allocation for the day.