You might have heard that strictly confining your rep and set ranges within a certain range will fast-track your training goals. You heard wrong. Why? Sets and reps don’t matter as much as you think. In fact, kick-starting your muscle-building based on numbers alone will put your progression in reverse.
It’s a controversial issue, so we settled the set and rep dilemma with one of the planet’s premier PTs: David Kingsbury, the man Hugh Jackman said is “the best trainer I have ever worked with.” We think that qualifies.
Place your attention elsewhere
True, you can adapt your sets and reps for your training goals (we’ll get to that later), but other factors are much more important, says Kingsbury: “Rest periods, exercise selection and a whole string of other factors trump reps or sets every time.”
The most important factor to get you to your training goal? “Nutrition. You get the body you eat for. No exceptions” explains Kingsbury. “ You can be in the best bodybuilding programme in the world, but if you’re in a calorie deficit then you’re not going to see the results. Likewise, if you’re looking to shred fat you can ruin your training plan with too many calories.” We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: you are what you eat.
And here’s the good news: we’ve got the complete diet plan you need, whether you’re aiming to load your muscles or shred fat the fast way.
Strength work is key to any exercise plan
Burning your belly doesn’t mean chaining yourself to the treadmill. Whatever your training goal, you need the weights room. Even if single-digit body fat is your only goal, cardio alone will actually lead to throwing out a lot of muscle mass along with calories, says Kingsbury. That might be fine if you’re pining for a Mo Farah physique, but that’s not what you’re looking for, is it?
Set it simple
The biggest mistake people make when it comes to your sets? Overcomplicating them. “Most people do too many exercises and not enough sets,” says Kingsbury. The fix: “simpler is always better. Having a few exercises in each circuit while cranking up your set numbers means you’ll perfect those exercises through repetition.”
Keep it varied
Another common training downfall is constricting your reps to a certain range. You don’t have to keep the rep numbers low if you’re looking to build strength or go beyond 15 if you want to supersize your disco muscles. “Solely keeping within a single rep range fails to target all your muscle fibres. Always aim for a broad stroke of rep numbers in your training plan.” Moral of the story: four barbell clean and jerks at 80% of your 1 rep max might catch a few eyes around the gym, but you’re muscles will thank you more if you follow it up with some high-rep resistance band work.
Embarking on a blubber-burning body transformation plan or working towards more mass? According to Kingsbury, whatever your goal, training programmes should be built from the same four types of session: classic strength workouts, hypertrophy lifting, high reps workouts and cardio.
So how do you build the body you want? Construct a programme using the correct ratio of blocks. Want to build more muscle? Include more strength sessions. More concerned about burning your belly? Opt for extra high rep exercises. A mix is more effective, says Kingsbury.
But before we get into specific numbers, here are the body transformation components every man should know about:
Classic strength workouts
These follow a simple equation: five reps, five sets of three classic muscle builders from this collection of exercises: squats, deadlifts, bench press,overhead presses, barbell rows, pull-ups and dips.
Simply pick your exercises and allow two to three minutes to recover. Just starting out? Pick your exercises and start with four sets for the first couple of weeks, advises Kingsbury.
Lighten the load, but not your muscle mass with four exercises for four sets, eight to 15 reps. Try to keep 60-90 seconds recovery time between each exercise if your goal is muscle mass, but reduce this down to 30 and include more supersets if you’re more concentrated on fat loss.
Not sure where to start? We’ve got plenty of workouts for your legs and upper-body that will do the job.
Higher rep workouts
The good news: these workouts are just two sets. The bad news: there’s a lot of reps. “Ideally you want to be working for timed sets – about 60-90 seconds for each exercise,” says Kingsbury.
And although the timings are high, you can keep the circuit extremely simple: just two exercises will do. Here’s one of Kingsburys’ circuits.
Just complete both exercises for four sets, 90 seconds each.
1. Grab the bars of a dip station with your palms facing inward and your arms straight.
2. Slowly lower until your elbows are at right angles, ensuring they stay tucked against your body and don't flare out.
3. Drive yourself back up to the top and repeat.
1. Set up with your weight supported on your toes and hands beneath your shoulders, body straight. Take care to keep you core locked so a straight line forms between your head, glutes and heels.
2. Lower your body until your chest is an inch from the ground then explosively drive up by fully extending your arms.
If you’re looking for fat-loss then you’ve got to crank up your cardio. Why? Asbodybuilder champion Aidan Broddell will tell you, it’s essential to raise your metabolism if you want to tear through body fat. But don’t worry, it doesn’t mean chaining yourself to a steady-state cycle session. “These can be short but if they are they have to intense, so make sure you are committed,” says Kingsbury. Then what’s the best cardio circuit you can complete in less than an episode of The Simpsons? Look towards our five best HIIT circuits.
(Related: How to avoid the 6 most common HIIT mistakes)
The best things about these workout building blocks are you can adapt them to your specific goals – it’s incredibly flexible. In fact, by using this block system you can share more gym sessions with friends – you can still do some of the same workouts, even if their goal is to slim down and yours is to bulk up.
However, if you’re looking for specific numbers, here’s our guide:
To build muscle mass
Divide your workouts into big-lifting classic strength work, hypertrophy sets, higher rep sets and cardio to the ratio 2:2:1. This means that if you have five sessions a week, three will be hypertrophy, one classic strength work and one higher rep set.
For example, you can divide up your five-day workout week like this:
Monday – Classic Strength
Tuesday - Hypertrophy
Wednesday - Rest
Thursday – Classic Strength
Friday – High rep workout
Saturday - Rest
Sunday - Hypertrophy
Just make sure that every three weeks you trade a hypertrophy workout for a cardio circuit to stay on plan.
If you’re keen on getting lean
For best results, divide up your five-day workout week like this:
Monday - Strength
Tuesday - Cardio
Wednesday - Rest
Thursday – Hypertrophy
Friday – High rep workout
Saturday - Rest
Sunday - Cardio
It’s really that simple.