Flex magazine study from 2005 on sets / reps / frequency

Discussion in 'Hypertrophy Research' started by Joe.Muscle, Mar 18, 2010.

  1. Joe.Muscle

    Joe.Muscle Active Member

    flex magazine article

    Strong science: training research on the ideal rep range, number of sets and workout frequency to maximize results

    Flex, June, 2005 by Jim Stoppani

    When it comes to the perfect training program, there are three key variables for gaining strength and muscle mass: the number of sets per bodypart, the number of reps completed per set and the frequency with which each bodypart is trained.

    Yet, if you were to ask the bodybuilding industry's biggest pros for their numbers of sets, reps and training frequency, you'd be surprised at how much their answers would differ. This means that different training schemes work better for some individuals than for others, which is often a frustrating realization for aspiring bodybuilders seeking the best way to train.

    This topic is debated in local gyms, college strength rooms and exercise physiology laboratories. There are so many differing opinions that it makes even the smartest exercise scientist's head spin. (FLEX staffers often ask yours truly this question just to observe this phenomenon.) Searching through scientific journals only turns up conclusions that vary from one study to another. Most scientific studies have two major flaws. One problem is that they often involve only a small group of subjects (usually 10-20) who are supposed to represent the bodybuilding majority. The other problem is that many weightlifting studies use beginners as subjects. Even the least-educated bodybuilder knows that beginners respond to training much differently than experienced bodybuilders.

    Fortunately, scientists from Arizona State University in Mesa, Arizona, have published a study that could give us some solid answers. They gathered data from 140 well-designed weightlifting studies and compared the optimum number of reps and sets and the best training frequency for inducing strength gains in both novice and trained (defined as having lifted weights consistently for more than one year) weightlifters. Then, the data was analyzed using a statistics method that calculated the optimal rep, set and frequency scheme for beginner and advanced weightlifters (see "Strong Results" sidebar).

    INTENSITY RULES | Intensity refers to the number of reps and the amount of weight employed.

    * Beginners The study concluded that beginners should start with a program of higher reps and lighter weight. Those who have been lifting for less than a year should use weights that allow 12-15 reps to be completed per set. Beginners make considerable strength gains by adaptations that occur within the nervous system. Lifting weights teaches the nervous system how to fire signals to the muscles faster and more efficiently so that the right muscle fibers are optimally recruited during a lift. Using more repetitions allows the nervous system to get more practice, as it must work to control each and every rep.

    * Advanced For advanced trainers, heavier weight and lower reps produced the greatest strength gains. If you've been training for more than a year and are interested in making strength gains, use weights that allow you to complete about six to eight reps per set. According to the concept of progressive overload, as muscles adapt to repeated training, you must challenge them with heavier weight. Therefore, advanced trainers need to use poundages that are relatively heavier than those a beginner would use.

    PUMP UP THE VOLUME | Volume refers to the total number of sets performed for one bodypart during a workout. If you do three sets of three exercises for chest, the total volume is nine sets.

    * Beginners The Arizona team discovered that beginners should complete only three or four sets per bodypart for good strength results. In the study, optimal results for beginners interested in gaining strength were achieved with three sets of one exercise per bodypart.

    When performing only one exercise per bodypart, FLEX recommends that it be a basic exercise, such as bench presses or incline bench presses for chest, barbell or dumbbell overhead presses for shoulders, barbell rows or pulldowns for back, squats or leg presses for legs, close-grip bench presses or skull-crushers for triceps and standing barbell or dumbbell curls for biceps. Considering its lower volume of exercises, this workout can be done as one full-body workout or split into two separate workouts that train the entire body (quads, hams, chest and triceps one day, for example, and back, shoulders, biceps and calves the next).

    * Advanced The volume of sets for advanced trainers is increased slightly but still remains on the lower side. Researchers found that advanced trainers who are concentrating on strength gains should perform only about four to six sets per bodypart. For most people, that means three sets of two exercises. The best option is to pick one basic exercise for each muscle (as previously described for beginners) and one assistance exercise (one that trains the muscle group in a similar manner to the basic exercise or that trains the muscle group using a single-joint exercise).

    For chest, do flat bench presses and incline dumbbell presses or dumbbell flyes. For shoulders, do barbell or dumbbell overhead presses followed by upright rows or lateral raises. For back, do bent barbell rows or pulldowns followed by one-arm dumbbell rows or seated cable rows. A good leg workout would entail squats or leg presses followed by lunges or leg extensions. For triceps training, perform close-grip bench presses or skull-crushers followed by triceps pressdowns. And for biceps, follow standing barbell or dumbbell curls with preacher curls or incline dumbbell curls.

    The best type of workout split is a two- or three-day training split. Again, progressive overload is behind the increase in the number of sets per bodypart for advanced trainers. As muscles adapt, increase the amount of stress they receive. One way to do this is to increase the number of sets performed. Of course, the increase only enhances strength to a degree. Scientists found that when more than six sets per bodypart were performed, strength gains were not as significant as for those who trained with four to six sets per bodypart.

    WHAT'S THE FREQUENCY, KENNETH? | Frequency refers to the number of times a bodypart should be trained each week.

    * Beginners As far as weekly training frequency goes, beginners should train each muscle group three times per week. (A beginner may choose to split his bodypart training over two workouts, resulting in a six-day-a-week program that works each muscle group three times weekly.) Weightlifting trains a beginner's nervous system, and by training more frequently, the nervous system can adapt at a faster pace. To make sense of this concept, consider when children learn to ride a bike. The more often they practice, the faster they learn.

    * Advanced On the other hand, advanced trainers should not train a bodypart more than twice per week to optimize strength gains. Unlike beginners, advanced trainers' nervous systems have pretty much adapted by this point. Their strength gains come mainly from adaptations in the muscle fibers themselves. Because training with heavy weights and more total sets causes more muscle damage than beginners would experience if they used lighter weights and fewer sets (as suggested by this study), advanced lifters require more recovery time between workouts. This allows the muscles to regenerate muscle protein and grow larger and stronger.

    BOTTOM LINE | Besides the results, there are other important points to take from this study. First, the study's conclusions are based on maximizing strength gains. What about maximizing muscle growth? Some would argue that these conclusions could also be applied to muscle growth. Although strength increases are not directly associated with more muscle mass, we know that being stronger will lead to more muscle mass.

    Second, don't forget about variety. Regardless of what the study found to be optimal, no single rep range, total number of sets or training frequency will give you optimal results forever. You need to mix it up and change these variables from time to time.

    Third and last, you are an individual and should train like one. Even though the study's results represent what works best for most lifters, it doesn't mean they will work best for you. Try the suggestions for six to eight weeks. After that, change the variables, whether they worked for you or not. If they did, use them frequently in your training program. If they didn't, try a different technique.
  2. Joe.Muscle

    Joe.Muscle Active Member

    Part 2 I couldn't post it all The board wouldn't let me too many words?



    Calves Standing calf raises 3-4 12-15
    Quads Squats 3-4 12-15
    Hams Leg curls 3-4 12-15
    Chest Bench presses 3-4 12-15
    Back Barbell rows 3-4 12-15
    Shoulders Barbell presses 3-4 12-15
    Triceps Lying barbell extensions 3-4 12-15
    Biceps Barbell curls 3-4 12-15

    NOTE: Add one warm-up set of 20 light reps of each exercise. The ideal
    is to train the entire body three times per week on nonconsecutive days.




    Quads Squats 3 6-8
    Leg extensions 3 6-8
    Hams Leg curls 3 6-8
    Stiff-leg deadlifts 3 6-8
    Chest Bench presses 3 6-8
    Incline flyes 3 6-8
    Triceps Lying barbell extensions 3 6-8
    Triceps pressdowns 3 6-8



    Back Barbell rows 3 6-8
    Pulldowns 3 6-8
    Shoulders Barbell presses 3 6-8
    Side lateral raises 3 6-8
    Biceps Barbell curls 3 6-8
    Incline dumbbell curls 3 6-8
    Calves Standing calf raises 3 6-8

    NOTE: Add one warm-up set of 20 light reps for the first exercise for
    each bodypart. Train every other day for a total of four times a week.


    This table shows the optimal variables for beginner and advanced weightlifters who are interested in maximizing strength gains.


    Optimal rep range 12-15 6-8
    Optimal number of sets per bodypart 3-4 4-6
    Optimal number of exercises per bodypart 1 2
    Optimal training frequency 3 days/week 4 days/week
    Optimal training split Full body Half body

    Reference: M.R. Rhea et al., "A meta-analysis to determine the dose response for strength development," Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 35(3):456-64, March 2003.
  3. sol255

    sol255 New Member

    I wonder if this why some people report better results on 15 and other at lower reps.
    Joe.Muscle likes this.
  4. LDU

    LDU New Member

    mentions strength alot, nothing i saw about hypertrphy
  5. nkl

    nkl Member

    The article pretty much sums up what I believe. I would add that the assistance sets should aim at a slightly higher rep range, thus you'll get both a high tension stimuli from the basic exercise and some metabolic work/stimuli from the assistance exercise. Best of both worlds, that is. But this is my view. Rest pause training of some sort would be a good choice for assistance work.

    The article mentioned that the advanced trainer gains by muscle adaptation rather than neural adaptation. Strength and hypertrophy should then logically go hand in hand. As the muscle grows, you also become stronger.

    As for difference in results of higher or lower reps, there are a myriad of pieces to the puzzle: Adaptation to stimuli, diet, rest, hormonal levels, initial satellite cell count, age, gender, etc., etc.
  6. Lol

    Lol Super Moderator Staff Member

    Flex article response, Part 1

    Is it just me, or do some of you also find this a bit of a limp read?

    Some of the bits that I thought were less than useful:

    If we put aside hormone levels, food etc. What about load and load progression?

    No I wouldn't. Androgens and anabolics allow for all sorts of training programs to work effectively.

    Yeah, right. Because muscle tissue is so very different from one person to the next.

    So the guy can spin his head. That's pretty cool.

    Once again expounding the belief that we don't have a clue how muscle tissue grows when, in fact, we do.

    More usefully, it refers to %1RM. Of course, 1RM is constantly shifting for all sorts of physiological and psychological reasons, which is why RPE becomes a useful gauge to compare training sessions.

    This is pretty much junkola. Look at the results you can get from starting new trainees off with a program like Ripp's SS -- all sets of 5. Works great! Beginners make considerable strength gains whatever rep range you care to throw at them -- within reason; it makes sense to get them to do enough reps to learn a movement well before having to deal with heavy loads.

    So is that 3 or 4 sets of 12-15 reps, 3 x weekly, per body-part -- for beginners?

    Weightlifting, eh? Oh, that'll be weight training then. Lifts that require higher skill levels will definitely require more practice to perfect (and require good coaching along the way so that bad habits are not practiced instead).
  7. Lol

    Lol Super Moderator Staff Member

    Flex article response, Part 2 (wasn't allowed to post it all in one reply)


    Is it? Don't you need to know the reps, the sets and the load too? What use is it knowing you did 9 sets if you don't know the reps of the load you used? The total number of lifts made with a particular load is more useful. Adding RPE to that is more useful again.

    Can't complain about the pretty standard exercise selection (although I'd add dips, deads, chins/pull-ups and cleans), but what about that last paragraph? Six sets of what? 20 reps? 2 reps? @ what %age 1RM? Oh dear!

    All else being equal, a larger muscle has the potential to be able to produce more force than a smaller muscle. That's a no-brainer.

    Try an HST cycle. That ought to do it.

    That's helpful then. Thanks. ;)
  8. electric

    electric HST Expert

    I had the feeling someone wouldn't agree with the study. :)
  9. Joe.Muscle

    Joe.Muscle Active Member


    Have you read Lyles article on the pros and cons of HST?

    Its very good.

    And because of his article is why I sometimes refer to HST as a program (yes i know its principals) but Lyles goes on to explain the principals and how they are setup inside of a program.

    Its a very interesting article about hypertrophy principals and basically it goes on to say that once you know the principals of hypertrophy there are still better way to set up routines when it comes to frequency for OPTIMAL results. key word being optimal.

    When you read it let me know...I thought it was a great article!

    2 must read articles


    Last edited: Mar 19, 2010
  10. Lol

    Lol Super Moderator Staff Member

    Yeah, read 'em a while back. Lyle is a smart guy.

    Lyle makes some very valid points; I don't fully agree with his take on frequency though:

    It is possible to have a simplified full-body routine that allows you to lift heavy once you are in the 5s without sapping you of all your energy after just one body part. It's also possible to work one major compound early in the day and do the rest later or vice versa, eg. you could bench and row in the morning and squat in the evening.

    I do think it is possible to fall into the trap of doing too much unnecessary work in a session (like Lyle says. I've done it too) and then not be able to keep the training frequency optimally high.

    I generally make good gains in my squat when I hit them at least twice a week. Sometimes the gains are disguised/masked by accumulating fatigue until I have some deload/SD time and then, as long as I've kept my cals at maintenance or higher, I get to see my strength go up too.

    I think a good approach for more advanced natural trainees, who are finding it tough to make progress, is to target a body part for specialisation by doing some extra volume for that part during a cycle of load progression. That might be in the form of a few extra sets of the main compound exercise for the body part in question, and/or some extra accessory work; the rest of the body would be trained to maintain size and strength but with normal volume. This might still elicit some gains for the non-specialisation body parts, but the main objective would be to maximise the growth potential in the area of specialisation.

    The benefit to this approach is that you can put more energy into training one part with extra volume without feeling like you ran out of energy for your other body parts. After a cycle, you could shift your focus to another body part.

    The danger in this approach is that it would be easy to overdo the work for the specialisation body part. You could start by adding just one more work set while keeping frequency at the same level and see how that works out. I would think more in terms of total reps (or number of lifts) per week. So if I was regularly doing 45 lifts a week (with working load) for most body parts, I'd up that to 50-55 lifts a week during a first attempt at specialisation and see how that panned out. If results were not noticeably better than before, I would increase total reps/week a little more the next time I targeted that body part.

    I could go into more detail on this idea but it might be better to start a new thread.

    Any thoughts?
  11. Joe.Muscle

    Joe.Muscle Active Member

    Well my thoughts are Bryan is just as smart as Lyle and he tends to have respond well to upper / lower split.

    If you look at his routine as of lately he is getting in about 150 reps a week total during 10's.

    The big decision I think Lyle and Blade have is the Right Now effect that they believe in.

    I would have to agree with them in my expirence that advanced lifters need more than 3 sets of 5 reps or 4 sets of 5 reps to grow IMO.

    In there opinion from what I have read they believe large muscle groups need 40-60 reps twice a week.

    Cut that down to 25-40 if you are doing MYO-REPS.

    Again they are not saying you can't grow they are looking at what is OPTIMAL for hypertrophy. So they are saying that you can grow on full body but in there expierence and opinino and through science...they believe you will grow faster or better or MORE OPTIMAL with slightly higher volume and less frequency.

    In the end I don't think it matters that much.
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2010
  12. Lol

    Lol Super Moderator Staff Member

    As you will be very well aware, Joe, number of lifts is very dependent on the intensity (% 1RM) so saying 40-60 reps (or whatever) per session isn't really a good enough measure. I feel that's where RPE becomes very useful in deciding when enough is enough (for any session).

    I know that 3 sets of 5 with close to my 5RM or a 5 x 3 @ > 90% intensity for a big compound movement would be enough to stress the heck out of me. Each set would be at least RPE 9. I might even have to cluster after the first set or two in order to get the reps without hitting RPE 10 more than once.

    For me personally, I usually make my best gains with higher frequency than 2 x weekly (3-4 x weekly depending on intensity) but I can't cope with that for all body parts at the same time. So, if I did something like a Smolov base cycle for squats I most certainly couldn't do a volume program for deads and bench at the same time. I'd burn out.

    Also, the impact on the CNS from a 3 x 5 @ > 80% intensity for deadlifts is way more than for a 3 x 5 @ > 80% intensity for, well, pretty much anything else above the belt.

    I understand that over a longer period of time, it may make little difference overall. Ie. an optimised 2 x weekly program may closely match an optimised 3 x weekly program. The key word is 'optimised' -- I do think that for a lot of folks who have reached the advanced stage in their lifting, optimising a 2 x weekly prog will probably be easier than optimising a 3 x weekly prog. You have to do what you find provides you with the best results for time and effort spent.
  13. Joe.Muscle

    Joe.Muscle Active Member

    I agree with you Lol.

    Personally I LOVE fullbody workouts and I would love upper / lower 6 times a week If I had time but I don't.

    As for total reps you are right that is up for debate I guess...???...I know that Myo-reps you can get by with less reps possibly as low as 15 I think. But again that is with heavy loads which you referrenced above.

    I guess we get right back at you got to get bigger to get stronger and stronger to get bigger....which is why when you think about all these studies and all the real world research and science....BRYAN was dead on with HST years ago.

    The only thing that I can say and say with expierence is if you are like me and I suffered a torn pec / bicep tendon years ago lifting very heavy you have to find a way to progress and trick your body into growing without going heavier than your 6 rep max if possible.

    To me unless you are wanting to powerlift the heavy heavy lifting just isn't worth the risk vs return.

    So for me I always do lean toward a little bit more moderate weight than the real heavy stuff.

    But I do miss the heavy heavy stuff!!!
    Last edited: Mar 19, 2010
  14. Lol

    Lol Super Moderator Staff Member

    Yeah, that's the rub.

    Proabably quite an individual thing that will be constantly in flux.

    Too right!

    Very valuable advice, Joe. After sustaining my hernia, a year ago now, it finally dawned on me that I'm not getting any younger and that I'm going to have to be more careful when I'm lifting heavy and getting fatigued. I'm always ready to re-rack or drop the weight once I get any inclination that something is feeling a little dodgy. There's always a risk of injury when using heavy weights but I do think the risk can be minimised.
    Joe.Muscle likes this.
  15. dkm1987

    dkm1987 New Member

    Just remember guys, this was a meta on strength training, not hypertrophy as none of the studies that met their inclusion requirements looked or dealt with hypertrophy.

    Not that it's bad, just being sure everyone is talking ducks and not oranges.
  16. Joe.Muscle

    Joe.Muscle Active Member


    I knew I could get out of the cave! :)

    Good to see you brother...now get on here and talk some science stuff :).

    Dan did you get chance to read Lyles articles?
  17. dkm1987

    dkm1987 New Member

    Joe, no I haven't and I really never read a lot of others works. I prefer to read the research itself.
  18. Joe.Muscle

    Joe.Muscle Active Member

    Well if you do....let us know what you think.

    You a smart guy....

  19. MaFi0s0

    MaFi0s0 New Member

    Very good read but it really seemed to me that its just 1 not-so-educated person's interpretation of a complex summary of 100 studies.

    I am a little injured at the moment and had to end my cycle at the end of 5s with plenty of gas in the tank unfortunetly. When I come back after 9 days provided I am no longer injured I am gonna try hit up the 15s for as long as I can with heavy load etc, 1 set each exercise and see how I go as a caution so I don't re-injure myself, got a feeling I wont do as well though but then I can give my joints a proper break they need at this time, and say this summary is wrong.
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2010

Share This Page