DETERMINING THE NUMBER OF SETS
As is the case when determining the optimal reps and tempo, the training objective also dictates another important variable – the number of sets.
In general, the higher the number of repetitions, the less sets that are required to achieve the optimal volume. Conversely, the lower the number of repetitions being performed, the more sets that are needed. There are of course exceptions to this, but to illustrate how training objective will most typically influence the number of sets performed we will take two examples for comparison:
For the example below we will take the athlete as having a 1RM of 200kg.
Summary = 64 seconds time under tension, with 180kg load or 90% 1RM.
ABSOLUTE STRENGTH/ HYPERTROPHY
On the other hand, when training for metabolic adaptations, absolute strength or body composition change, due to the higher number of repetitions being performed for these training goals, less sets are required to achieve the optimal loading. In fact, even with high performing athletes, when the reps and time under tension are particularly high, as little as one set of an exercise may be all that is required. A common example of a session designed for an athlete looking to increase their hypertrophy and absolute strength may include 3 sets of 10 repetitions at a tempo of 30X0.
Summary = 120 seconds time under tension, with 140kg load or 70% 1RM.
As with all variables, there are many factors which influence the decisions around the number of sets to be performed. The number of exercises to be performed, the training history of the athlete, the phase of the program (extensive/intensive) and the the stage of the competitive season they are in (pre-season/taper/in-competition), are all considered during the program design process.
In this series of articles, we have looked at a number of the key variables of strength training. However, program design is not limited to just weight, tempo, reps, sets and rest. Training frequency and splits, the number and order of exercises and even range of motion are just a few examples that can all be manipulated to help achieve a specific training outcome.