There are two main schools of thought regarding set and rep schemes. The powerlifting and Olympic lifting strategy is to lift heavy weights for low repetitions. In contrast, most bodybuilders train using moderate weights for high reps and keep their number of sets on any given lift relatively low. Both of these strategies are effective for gaining strength and size, but the emphasis is different.
Powerlifters and Olympic lifters train in a low rep range for many sets because this is the optimal way to develop the burst of strength and power needed in competition. Training for many sets on the same lift is also an effective way to drive the lift into muscle memory. When you start lifting heavy, your set-up and queues will become crucial to whether you miss or hit a lift. The stress of being under very heavy weight, which aids in developing this neural pathway, necessitates a lower rep count.
If you’re training in this rep range, you’re going to train for speed and power. The faster you can break the weight, the more likely you are to be able to lock out. Paused lifts have their place in Oly- and powerlifting, but you will never see a powerlifter train by driving slowly out of the hole. The focus is always on moving maximum weight as efficiently as possible, which means quickly. After high effort attempts at lifts, long periods of rest are required to allow for neural recovery as well as muscular recovery; some powerlifters rest up to 10 minutes between heavy deadlift sets. This also allows for very long training sessions, which can be a positive or negative depending on your point of view.
Some popular rep schemes for powerlifting are 5×5 (as popularized largely by Stronglifts) and 5/3/1 (as developed by Jim Wendler). 5×5 training means that five reps are executed per set for five sets of a given compound lift. Accessory lifts are either trained also in the 5×5 scheme, or sometimes 4×8 in programs that lean towards powerbodybuilding. 5/3/1 is a proven strength gaining method that programs lifts at 3×5 for the first week, 3×3 the second week, and 3×1 on the third week, with weights increasing each week and the fourth week taken as a deload. There are many variations and specific programs that incorporate these rep schemes, as well as other good methods of progressively adding weight to the bar.
Bodybuilders train for hypertrophy, or the enlargement of muscle from the increase in size of its cells. This is achieved by training for volume with moderate weights. These rep/set schemes elicit the “pump” associated with hypertrophy by driving blood into your muscles via increased time under tension. To achieve maximum hypertrophy, some bodybuilders will increase their time under tension not only by high rep sets, but also by slowing the reps down or pausing at the peak of the lift. Training using bodybuilding methods will increase your muscle size and have an impact on your strength, but will not give you the brute strength of training in lower rep ranges. Most bodybuilders try to limit rest between sets in order to increase working time and muscle damage, because torn muscle fibers elicit muscle growth as they rebuild and repair.
Most bodybuilding programs incorporate many lifts and each lift is executed for only a few sets and high reps. Some popular rep schemes are 4×8 with fewer overall lifts, or 2×12 to incorporate many different lifts and stress the muscle from all angles. No matter what rep scheme a program falls in, the focus in bodybuilding is always on maintaining good mind-muscle connection to force stress on a specific muscle and generate hypertrophy and growth.
You Can Have It All!
There are lots of good ways to keep variation in your rep/set scheme, and a truly well-developed physique and functional fitness is usually achieved by including elements of both low rep and high rep training. Intermediate to advanced lifters will find it necessary to change up both their rep scheme and their intensity from time to time in order to avoid burnout or plateau.
One proven method is to hit one or two big compound lifts at the beginning of your session and work up to heavy doubles or triples for at least a few working sets at your top weight, then move to accessory lifts in a more moderate rep range, around 6-8. This method of training is referred to generally as powerbodybuilding, because it incorporates powerlifting methodologies with a strong focus on hypertrophy. Generally the accessory lifts are large compound movements themselves, such as Romanian deadlifts on deadlift day, or closegrip bench press for bench day. Some popular examples of this school of training are Mike O’Hearn’s Powerbodybuilding and Steve Shaw’s Power Muscle Burn programs.
Another way to train using heavy weights while still achieving high volume is by utilizing Cluster Sets. Cluster sets are performed by lifting a given weight for close to max repetitions and then resting for a short period (usually 15 seconds) before lifting the weight again for either max reps or a prescribed amount of reps, then resting 15 seconds and repeating at least once more. For example, a lifter might hit 8 reps at 200lbs on deadlift, rest for fifteen seconds, then knock out four more, rest again, and come back for a final two pulls. Fifteen seconds is not enough time for her muscles to fully recover, so the second and third sub-sets of the cluster are much more difficult to perform than they would be as stand-alone sets. However, she’s now pulled effectively 14x200lbs (probably close to 75% 1RM) rather than the ~65% that would be possible with a straight set of 14 reps. This is an effective and safe way to increase training volume while allowing the lifter to stay heavy, and is best utilized with compound lifts rather than isolation lifts (go back to a straight rep scheme for those.)
Pyramid sets utilize both high rep/moderate weight and low rep/heavy weight schemes into a single group of sets on a given lift. At the outset of a pyramid set, a light weight is selected and the lift is executed for high reps. For the next set, a slightly heavier weight is selected and lifted for slightly less reps. This pattern continues until the highest weight/lowest rep set, and then backs down in reverse – hence, pyramid. This is an intense method of training and the volume adds up very quickly. A beginner may only want to execute one ramp up set, a top set, and then one ramp down set, while an advanced lifter may expand the pyramid out to include five sets up and five sets down after the peak. Taking our previous lifter, she might start a pyramid set with that same 8x200lb deadlift, then 6x215lbs, 4x225lbs, peaking at 2x235lbs, and then working back down with 4x225lbs, 6x215lbs, and finishing at another 8x200lbs.