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Sets x Reps Plan and Philosophy

by Gary F. Zeolla

This article refers to Full Workout Logs: Two by Two Powerlifting Training Plan - 2016; Pre-Contest Routine, Weeks 7-12 of 12.

I’ve been missing quite a few reps of late, getting buried on several occasions. And that has led to me feeling overtrained and having to take extra days off, messing up my training. This all that got me rethinking my sets x reps, and I realized the problem was I got away from my original plan.

Original Plan

My original plan when I started to train hard again in the fall of 2013 was to start a routine with what I could do comfortably for 3 sets x 6, 4, 2 reps. Then I would increase the weights each workout and to shoot for the same. But when I could only do one less rep on one or more sets, going say 5, 3, 1, then my plan was as written in my previous logs:

Last time, my squat work sets were for 5, 3, 1 reps. This time, using the same weights, I did 6, 4, 2 reps. Next time, I will increase the weights and do 5, 3, 1. Then the next workout after that I will repeat those weights and do 6, 4, 2, etc. Of course, things won’t always work out so perfectly, but that’s the ideal.

Last time I did 5, 3, 1 reps for my two main exercises. This time I did 6, 4, 2 reps using the same weights, exactly according to plan. Next time I’ll increase the weights and try for 5, 3, 1.

Modifications and Plan

I am going back to this plan, although I might modify this slightly. When I do 5, 3, 1, if the sets were very hard, then for next time I will drop the weights slightly so as to ensure getting the 6, 4, 2 reps. This will have me doing the higher reps of the given ranges most of the time. Reviewing my logs, I make better progress when I am doing so, as opposed to doing the lower reps. I prefer to do the lower reps, but I have to go with what works best.

That confirms a philosophy I’ve long held—singles and doubles are great for testing strength, but they do not actually build strength, while 3-6 reps are best for building strength. Powerlifters need to do heavy singles and doubles to condition the body to handle heavy weights, but given how demanding singles are, they should only be done sparingly. I will thus probably do more doubles than singles, as they are less demanding, but I can still handle heavy weights with them, and I can rather easily estimate my 1RM from a 2RM.

If I get one less rep on one or more sets, that is fine. The point is, I won’t be shooting for an exact number of reps, but just to be within the ranges of 5-6, 3-4. 1-2, but I will shoot for the higher reps. However, as long as I am within this range for a given set, I will not consider it a “missed” rep and will not mark it with an asterisk as I have been doing. Also, I will no longer indicate my planned reps in parentheses in my training logs. I'll just say here that my planned sets x reps are as follows:

Powerlifts and Look-alike Lifts: 3 x 5-6, 3-4. 1-2

Upper Back and Speed Work: 3 x 6-7, 4-5, 2-3

Arms Work: 3 x 9-10, 7-8, 5-6

Most Morning Workouts Exercises: 3 x 11-12, 9-10, 7-8

Rotator Cuff Work: 3 x 13-14, 11-12, 9-10

I am switching to this new plan for my final two weeks of my current routine. And that is where my videos became valuable, as I needed to go back over them so as to know when I needed to drop the weights for my final workouts. I will also continue to use this approach for my next training plan.

Where I Went Wrong

I think where I went wrong is setting a specific number of reps. That had me trying that last rep to get my planned reps, even when I knew I probably would not get it and thus missed it. IOW, I need stick to my philosophy of training to ALMOST failure, not TO failure as I did several times in this routine. This relates back to why I will do more doubles than singles. With a double, if the first rep is harder than expected, I can skip the second rep and will have still done one full rep and will have not trained to failure. But with a single, if I miss it, I will have done no full reps and will have trained to failure.

Initial Workouts

For my first workout using this plan (a Bench Assistance workout), for my first major exercise (3 count pause decline benches), I did 6, 4, 2 reps, with the final rep of each set being very hard but a bit shy of a full effort. For my second exercise (CG inclines), I did 5, 3, 2 reps. On the first two sets, the final reps were again very hard but not quite a full effort, but I knew I would not get the next rep, so I stopped there. But on the final set, I thought I would get the next rep, so I tried and got it, though it required a full effort. That is all just as I want it to be. Here is a video of that workout.

But then in my next workout (a Squat workout), for the first major exercise (squats with sleeves), I did six reps on the first set, but that set was really hard and left me very winded. That was probably due to not having done a set of six reps on squats in over a month, due to having taken a couple of extra days off during that time period due to feeling overtrained. As a result, I only got three reps on my next set, not trying the fourth as I knew I would not get it. But then on the final set, I thought I would get the final rep, so I tried it; but I stalled about halfway up and got buried. I felt at the time I really should have gotten that rep, and reviewing the video, I still feel that way, so I am not sure what happened. But as it was, it was a mistake.

Then on my second exercise (chain squats), the chains somehow got messed up, so I had to fiddle with the 45 pounds of chains for 15 minutes to fix them. That got me behind and tired out. But the first two sets went as planned getting six then four reps. But on the last set, the bar felt unbalanced when I took it off of the rack, so I had to stop the video and check the weights and then reset. The first rep was then very hard, and with being so tired, I didn't try the second rep. If it hadn't been for the problem with the chains, having to reset, and being out of shape for doing six reps, I probably would have gotten the hoped for double on that set.

Also contributing to my problems in this workout is I have a contest less than two weeks away and was probably being a bit overly optimistic in picking my weights for the workout. But I was really pushing it in hopes of hitting my rather aggressive goals on squats for the contest. And in this workout my reps were still within my prescribed rep ranges, and three of the six work sets were for 50s PRs, so the workout still went rather well. Here is a video of that workout.

Then in my next workout (a Bench workout), for the first major exercise (dead stop benches), on the first set, the fifth rep was extremely hard, a full max, so I did not attempt a sixth. And with that set being so hard, I dropped my planned weights 2.5 pounds for the next two sets. That was the right call, as on the second set, the third rep was very hard, so I did not attempt a fourth. But then on the final set, the first rep was easy enough that I figured I could get a second rep, so I went for it and got it, thought it was a near full effort.

Then for the second exercise (reverse band benches), since I needed to drop the weights for the first exercise, I figured I'd better for the second. I obviously had again been overly optimistic when I wrote down the weights for this workout after the previous time doing it. And that again was the right call, as I did 6, 4, 2 reps, with the final rep of each set being a near max. Here is a video of this workout. For my remaining four workouts after this before my upcoming contest, see my current training log. For previous and future workouts, see Full Workout Logs: 2014-15. And for more workout videos, follow the link.

Experienced Lifters Only

I've gone into detail about these three workouts as they show the thinking process that goes into using this training plan and philosophy. It is not ad hoc. It requires much forethought before a workout in correctly picking the weights for the workout. These weights are based on the difficulty of the sets the previous time each exercise was performed. This is where having videos of the workouts helps, as they can be reviewed before writing the weights for the next workout. This plan also requires much thinking during a set, so as to know when to attempt the next rep and when not to.

Novice lifters would not have the experience to know just the right amount to adjust weights from workout to workout or be able to know if the next rep will be completed or not. But one must do both in order to have a set end at the "almost failure" level of being a near or full max, but without missing a rep. As seen in my descriptions, I had problems in this regard for the indicated reasons. But as I get used to doing six reps again and more accustomed to training to almost failure again and picking my weights for such, these problems should be corrected.

Contest Attempts and Sets

With this plan, at my upcoming and future contests, my openers will be what I did for 4-5 reps, and my second attempts will be what I did for 2-3 reps. If those go as planned, then my final attempts will be for whatever my goals are for each lift. But I will increase between attempts by about what I normally increase between sets in training. That is one reason why I do three work sets on the powerlifts and look-alike lifts--it best prepares me for doing three attempts at a contest, and it makes it easy to pick the weights for my attempts at a contest. This is probably why I've gone 9/9 at both of my contests since using this plan, with all six third attempts being near or full maxes. I left maybe 5-10 pounds on the platform at each contest, but that’s it.

I've also found three work sets to work best for me progress-wise, and it gives me the ability to us a variety of reps in each workout--a higher reps set of 5-6 for volume, a middle reps set of 3-4 for strength, and a top set of 1-2 reps for the aforementioned conditioning to handle heavy weights. One or two sets would not provide any of this, while four or more sets would make for too much volume and too long of workouts.

I also do three work sets for other exercises for similar reasons. It gives me the ability to do a higher, a medium, and a lower reps set. The dropping of reps and increasing weights also keeps the workout interesting, as each set is a new challenge, while doing say three sets with the same weights for the same number of reps can get boring and seem redundant. But I use higher reps ranges for exercises other than the powerlifts and look-alikes, as the indicated reps ranges seem to work best for the given exercises.


"If it's not broken, don't fix it." I've found that adage to be true in many areas if life, including powerlifting training. If my training is going well, but I change things anyway, it almost always ends up being a mistake. I thus need to remember to stick with what I know works and to stop trying to "improve" things when they don't need improving. For how this all worked out, see my contest report for APF/ AAPF Ohio State Powerlifting Championships - 2016.

Sets x Reps Plan and Philosophy. Copyright 2016 by Gary F. Zeolla.

Powerlifting and Strength Training
Powerlifting and Strength Training: Full Workout Logs: 2014 - Present

The above article was posted on this site August 26, 2016.
It was renamed and updated on August 30, 2016.

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