A Simple System for Progression: 3 Set Total Reps

We all want to be making progress in the gym, but unfortunately, many lifters remain stagnant. In general, you want to make sure you’re getting stronger over time. Getting stronger means using more load or achieving more repetitions with the same weight. This is the essence of progressive overload, which I discussed in great detail HERE. While there are a million ways to progressively overload, I’m going to outline a very simple system I use in my own training and with my clients.


3 Set Total Reps

When I prescribe an exercise, quite often I will use the same load with all 3 sets, and I’ll simply note the total number of reps they achieve (this is in contrast to pyramids, which I wrote about HERE). Once they reach a particular total, I’ll increase the load. I first learned about this method from a Joe DeFranco DVD that I purchased many years ago, and it’s something that I’ve consistently sprinkled into my training since then. With this method, you want to keep the rest periods fairly consistent, say around 90-120 seconds. Let me give a specific example.

For hip thrusts, I like 36 reps for beginners for the 3 set total. This isn’t based off of any particular research, it’s just an arbitrary number I use.

Several weeks ago, I started my client Ciji off with 65 lb hip thrusts. She was able to achieve 20 reps, then 15 reps, then 15 reps on her three sets (resting around 90 seconds in between sets). This equated to 50 repetitions. The next session, I upped the load to 85 lbs. She performed 16 reps, then 14 reps, then 12 reps. This totaled 42 reps. Again, the load was too light for her. The following session, I upped the weight to 95 lbs. She was able to complete 12 reps, then 12 reps, then 12 reps, for a total of 36 reps. HERE is one of those sets.

This was the exact number I was looking for, so it took me a few weeks to dial in the appropriate load. Since she completed the 36 reps with 95 lbs, I upped the weight for her next session. Just yesterday, I prescribed 115 lbs. She was able to achieve 10 reps, then 10 reps, then 8 reps, for a total of 28. I anticipate that next session, she’ll attain 36 reps, in which case I’ll move her up to 125 lbs for the next session.

Notice the jumps that I’m making. Since Ciji is a beginner but is in good physical shape, I made mostly 20 lb jumps right off the bat (in addition, I was under-loading her, which called for bigger jumps). As she gains experience and as I hone in on the right load, I move down to 10 lb jumps. Eventually, the jumps become 5 lbs.

The main point is that she’s going up in load or reps each week and is following some sort of progression system. By the way, I have her doing barbell hip thrusts one session and band hip thrusts the next, since she comes twice per week (along with various other exercises).


Other Options

You don’t have to stick to 36 reps. You can choose whatever number you want. I have different preferences.

For goblet squats, I like 24 total reps.

For kettlebell deadlifts, I like 18 total reps.

For band hip thrusts, back extensions, and band seated hip abductions, I like 60 total reps.

You don’t even have to do a 3 set total. You can choose a two set total if you want. For most single leg exercises, I only prescribe 2 sets.

For Bulgarian split squats, reverse lunges, step ups, skater squats, and single leg RDLs, I like 20 reps (for a 2 set total).

For single leg hip thrusts, I don’t add load – I just try to improve upon the 2 set rep total over time. My brother likes to do this with bodyweight push-ups; he can do 90 reps in 3 sets, which he tries to improve upon each month.


What if You’re Prioritizing Maximum Strength?

If maximum strength is what you seek, then you want to make sure you’re getting in your lower reps, your medium reps, and your higher reps. This way, you reap the best of the strength and hypertrophy worlds, as these feed off of each other in the long run.

I prefer to perform a lower number of reps for the lifts I’m trying to increase (in my case, squats, bench press, and deadlifts since I love powerlifting, but you can choose other lifts, such as weighted chin ups, or dumbbell bench press, or trap bar deadlifts). I might choose 12 reps for my 3 set total for the big three lifts. However, for assistance lifts such as front squats, block pulls, and incline press, I might choose 18 reps for my 3 set total. With targeted lifts such as hip thrusts, hammer strength rows, cybex leg press, and hammer curls, I might choose 30 reps for my 3 set total.

Here’s an example. A couple of months ago I bench pressed (pausing on the chest for 1-sec) 270 lbs for 5 reps, then 4 reps, then 3 reps. Since I achieved the 12-rep total, I increased the load to 275 lbs. The next session I did 4 reps, then 3 reps, then 3 reps, for a total of 10 reps. The following two sessions I totaled 11 reps (this happens – you don’t always set PRs). Finally, I was able to get 275 lbs for a total of 12 reps (over 3 sets with around 180 seconds of rest). I moved up to 280 lbs and it took me several weeks to achieve the 12 rep total, and now I’m using 285 lbs.

Switch it Up

You won’t improve linearly in strength on any lift over the course of a year. Strength gains zigzag over time, but in general, each year you should be using heavier loads on your big lifts. Beginners will sky-rocket in strength, whereas advanced lifters will make much smaller jumps.

You might want to spend 8-weeks or so with a particular total (say 36 reps), then switch to a different total for 8-weeks (say 24 reps). This will prevent boredom, frustration, and stagnation. Nevertheless, there are many ways to get stronger, but you need a system. There’s a popular saying that goes like this: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Utilize the simple 3 set total reps system to ensure progression and results.


What The Gambler Can Teach You About Strength Training

Kenny Rogers sang The Gambler in 1978. On the surface, the song appears to be about gambling, but there’s a much deeper meaning pertaining to life in general. The song is very appropriate for the field of strength & conditioning, and the lessons contained within take most lifters two decades to fully comprehend. Here’s the video:

And here’s the chorus:

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done

kenny_rogers Consider the training week. Say you lift four days per week. Typically, one of these days will rock, one will suck, and two will be mediocre.

Consider the training year. A few months will kick ass, a few months will suck, and half the year you’ll feel like you’re just plugging away. Strength and physique gains are never linear.

Do you have the fortitude to stick it out, or will you quit as soon as the going gets tough?

Some days, you’ll have something you want to accomplish in mind, but it just won’t be there. Will you be stubborn and grind away, allowing your form to turn to crap and risking injury? Or, will you be disciplined enough to walk away and live to train another week?

Other days, you’ll feel like superman. On these days, you might get a little carried away and do too much. The next day or day after, you might be wiped out. Will you stick to the exact recipe even though you’re drained? Or, will you modify your training accordingly and back off a bit to allow your body to recover?

There might be an exercise that consistently causes you pain or injury. Assuming you’ve taken the time to learn proper form and strengthen the appropriate supporting muscles, will you be stubborn and keep grinding away at this exercise, or will you find a suitable substitution and live to train another week? Here’s another line from the song: “Every gambler knows, that the secret to survivin’, is knowing what to throw away, and knowing what to keep.”

Your body is pretty good at sending you signals (biofeedback, if you will). Will you pay attention to them? Or, will you be stubborn and ignore them?

Is there a particular area of your body that is acting up on a regular basis? Have you identified the culprit? Many people assume that they need to perform special corrective exercises in order to rid their pain, but many times simply removing the offender will alleviate the discomfort.

Are you disciplined enough to walk away from an exercise for a brief period of time, even if it’s one of your favorite movements? Many times taking a step backwards will allow you to take two steps forward. Or, will you grind away and turn an acute situation into a chronic situation? front-squat Do you know what your personal “money” exercises are? I can guarantee you that they’re going to be slightly different than those of your colleagues, depending on individual goals, anatomy/anthropometry, injury history, and logistics.

Lifter A might choose the back squat, deadlift, hip thrust, bench press, military press, and bent over row. Lifter B might choose the front squat, trap bar deadlift, glute ham raise, farmer’s walk, weighted chin up, and weighted dip. Lifter C might choose the Bulgarian split squat, single leg RDL, sled push, heavy kettlebell swing, weighted push up, and inverted row. Lifter D might choose the hip thrust, goblet squat, weighted back extension, American deadlift, dumbbell incline press, and one arm row. Lifter E might choose the Cybex leg press, kneeling leg curl machine, glute blaster machine, Hammer Strength chest press, Hammer Strength row, and cable lateral raise.

Have you taken the time to master technique, experiment with different exercises, and tinker with different protocols so that you can understand how your body responds to different stimuli? Or, do you just follow someone else’s template or someone else’s orders without questioning it?

The quicker you can master the advice uttered by the lonely gambler, the better off you will be as a lifter. I can assure you that if you’re consistent over the long haul, if your training is generally pain-free, if you’re strict with your form, and if you pay close attention to your body, you’ll see markedly more progress than the lifter that doesn’t. band hip thrust

Do More than “Just Squat”

There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and some meathead on Facebook advising a lifter to “just squat” when he sees a picture or video of a woman performing a glute exercise he isn’t familiar with. I refer to these meatheads as “just squat” bros. Is their advice sound? Should women discontinue all of their other glute exercises and focus solely on the squat? In this article, I’m going to explain why the “just squat” mantra is horrendous advice for those who are trying to maximize glute development.

Squats are great. But does anyone really "just squat"?

Squats are great. But does anyone really “just squat”?

Before I get started, let me quickly address the squat. Does the squat build the glutes? Absolutely. Should you squat, assuming you can do so comfortably without consistently injuring yourself? Of course. Is “just squatting” the optimal way to maximize glute development? Hell no.

In this article, I’m going to ignore the fact that some bodies aren’t well-suited for squatting. I’m going to ignore the fact that muscles contain functional subdivisions which are preferentially activated via different movements, and I won’t focus on the fact that squats don’t fully activate all the motor units – especially in the upper glute region. I’m not going to focus on the fact that there are three primary mechanisms to muscle growth, whereby some exercises are better-suited for stimulating one mechanism over another. Instead, I’m going to highlight a recent research paper, then I’m going to explore the training methods of the athletes, physique competitors, and fitness models with the best gluteal muscle development.

squats versus hip thrusts

Some exercises produce more tension than others, some more metabolic stress than others, and some more damage than others. Some exercises target different subdivisions than other exercises. One exercise alone cannot maximize the hypertrophic response for any muscle.

Is One Exercise Ever Sufficient for Maximizing Muscle Growth?

Sounds very appealing, right? Quit blasting away on multiple exercises and just focus on a single one. Unfortunately, if something sounds to good to be true, it usually is. Though the “just do one exercise per muscle group” mantra has been championed by dozens of pseudoexperts over the past twenty years in strength & conditioning, there was never a good study that examined this question, so they were free to speculate. That is, until now.

Check out THIS paper, which was just recently published ahead of print in the JSCR. This is a well-conducted study, and the researchers had one group “just squat,” while the other group did a volume matched protocol that included squats, deadlifts, leg press, and lunges. Let me reiterate – volume was matched between groups, so they did the same total number of sets and reps. What did they find?

The variety group experienced better hypertrophic gains than the “just squat” group. This study used the quadriceps for analysis, which always elicit peak activation of over 100% of MVIC (maximum voluntary isometric contraction) during the squat. For hamstring and glute development, I surmise that “just squatting” would be much more lackluster in terms of the hypertrophic adaptations elicited compared to a variety group, since the activation relative to MVC is lower than it is for the quadriceps (see HERE for a report on glute activation in a variety of movements). At any rate, these findings imply that those individuals who advise people to just do one exercise for maximizing the hypertrophy of any muscle are muscle group are erroneous.


Finally, we have a study showing that variety is superior for muscle hypertrophy

If maximum quad growth is the goal, do squats and also do exercises such as front squats, leg press, lunges, and leg extensions. If maximum hammie growth is the goal, do squats and also do exercises such as deadlifts, good mornings, back extensions, glute ham raises, Nordic ham curls, kneeling leg curls, lying leg curls, and seated leg curls. If maximum glute growth is the goal, do squats and also do exercises such as hip thrusts, deadlifts, back extensions, lunges, standing cable abduction, and machine seated hip abduction.

Do Real-World Ladies Who Have Transformed Their Glutes “Just Squat”?

I sure don’t know of any. I can tell you that none of my clients or followers who experienced great results just squatted – not Kellie, not Marianne, not Sammie, not Erin, not Nathalia, not Brittany, not Alli, not Casey, not Sasha, not Megan, not Colleen, not Rachel, not Joy, not Sam, not Karli, not Diana, not Angie, not Lizzy, not Katie, not Chelsea, not Anne, not Alicia, not Molly, not Kate, not Kelli, and not any of the numerous other testimonials and before/after pics that you can see ON THIS PAGE.

Now, the squat happens to be the exercise that I perform most in my own training. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been a squatting fiend. However, my personal training methodology isn’t about me – it’s about my clients and their goals. All of my clients do some form of squatting, but squats aren’t usually the centerpiece of the program (keep in mind I train mostly physique clients, not pro athletes or powerlifters). My favorite exercises for female physique clients happen to include the barbell hip thrust, band hip thrust, goblet squat, kettlebell deadlift, back extension, and walking lunge.

Now, you might think this exercise list is absurd if you’re a “just squat” bro. But there’s one glaring problem here – the “just squat” bros never have any evidence of their success in transforming client’s backsides. I take great pride in my testimonials, and I feel that they’re the best in the world for glute transformations.

Guess what? Most of the ladies on my testimonials page credit hip thrusts for the majority of their glute gains, not squats. As a matter of fact, there are a few of them rarely squatted. Blasphemy, you say? The fact of the matter is, there are many great glute exercises out there, and many roads can lead to Rome. As long as you’re hammering a handful of glute exercises , including some that target the flexed-range hip extension ROM, some that target the extended-range hip extension ROM, and at least one that targets hip abduction/external rotation, you’re probably going to experience good results. But you won’t maximize your results by doing just one exercise for glutes. One consistent theme in the numerous testimonials I receive from women is that once they started incorporating more variety, their glute-building rate of progress soared.


Do your squats, but make sure to hip thrust too!

I wrote my thoughts on hip thrusts versus squats in a guest post for Eric Cressey, and my verdict is that both should be performed for optimal results. At any rate, variety will always trump a single exercise for hypertrophic gains, and you have plenty of time throughout the week to squat and do other glute exercises. For example, after the client finishes their squats, they can easily throw in a couple of sets of one or more of the following exercises for even better results: American deadlifts, heavy kettlebell swings, band hip thrusts, barbell hip thrusts, cable pull-throughs, single leg hip thrusts, or pendulum quadruped hip extensions. I can’t see how any intelligent human being could argue against this.


Kellie Davis built her butt with hip thrusts, squats, deadlifts, barbell glute bridges, single leg hip thrusts, back extensions, Bulgarian split squats, reverse hypers, band hip rotations, RKC planks, kettlebell swings…you get the point.

Do Pro Bikini Competitors and Fitness Models “Just Squat” for Glute Development?

No, they don’t. I’ve never heard of one bikini, figure competitor, or fitness model who just squatted – literally never. Every single one of them performs a variety of glute exercises. This is true for Jamie Eason, Vida Guerra, Nathalia Melo, Ashley Kaltwasser, and Michelle Lewin. Each of them employ a variety of gluteal exercises, including squats, RDL’s, hip thrusts, reverse hypers, back extensions, lunges, cable donkey kicks, cable standing hip abduction, and more.

jamie eason glutes

Jamie Eason doesn’t “just squat”

vida guerra glutes

Vida Guerra doesn’t “just squat”

nathalia melo glutes

Nathalia Melo doesn’t “just squat”

ashley kaltwasser glutes

Ashley Kaltwasser doesn’t “just squat”

Michelle Lewin glutes

Michelle Lewin doesn’t “just squat”

You know who else doesn’t “just squat”? The Victoria Secret models. They enjoy their specialized glute workouts consisting of a variety of movements. If the “just squat bros” started training Victoria Secret models, they’d quickly be fired for throwing off their proportions.

Victoria Secret models do dedicated glute workouts with variety

Victoria Secret models do dedicated glute workouts with variety

Do Pro Bodybuilders “Just Squat” for Glute Development? 

No, they don’t. For example, HERE and HERE are videos of Kai Greene training glutes, and HERE is a video of Johnnie Jackson training his posterior chain. You’ll note the Jefferson deadlifts, pendulum quadruped donkey kicks, seated abduction machine, Dimel deadlifts, deadlifts, hip thrusts, back extensions, and glute ham raises.

Kai & Phil don't "just squat"

Kai & Phil don’t “just squat”

Do Elite Powerlifters “Just Squat” for Glute Development?

No, they don’t – and hypertrophy isn’t their primary goal, strength is. Nevertheless, they also deadlift (in concordance with their sport), and the vast majority also perform lower body assistance lifts, such as back extensions, reverse hypers, pull-throughs, Dimel deadlifts, leg presses, and/or swings. HERE and HERE are videos of Pete Rubish doing some accessory glute work for his deadlift. Note the hip thrusts, barbell glute bridges, Bulgarian split squats, and heavy back extensions.

Pete Rubish doesn't "just squat"

Pete Rubish doesn’t “just squat”

This tendancy is true for all strength and power athletes. Olympic lifters do squats and front squats, along with clean and snatch variations, and many also do back extensions. Hip thrusts are gaining popularity in the Olympic lifting world, which is difficult considering it’s a sport dictated largely by tradition. Strongmen do squats, along with deadlifts, stone lifts, yoke walks, farmer’s carries, Zercher and good morning movements, sledwork, and more. Some strongmen are adding hip thrusts into their training as well.

Do Brazilian Women “Just Squat” for Glute Development?

The Brazilian women prioritize glute development in their training. If just squatting was the best way to go about building glutes, they’d go down this route. But they don’t just squat – they’ve found that variety expedites results.

HERE is former Ms. Bikini Olympia Nathalia Melo discussing glute training in Brazil. As you’ll see, the squat is just one of the many glute exercises they employ, and they have a very large arsenal of free weight, ankle weight, band, cable, and machine exercises to hit their glutes. In fact, their gyms tend to have separate portions of the gym dedicated to glute training. Below is a video of Nathalia going through a glute workout with me (on this day we also did goblet squats and back extensions):

If you check out Nathalia’s Instagram, or Gracyanne Barbosa’s Instagram, you’ll note a ton of variety for glute training.

Do NFL Players “Just Squat” for Glute Development? 

No, they don’t. In fact, I don’t know of a single pro strength coach who has his athletes just squat. Every high-level strength coach I know employs a variety of hip and leg strengthening exercises. For example, Arizona Cardinals strength coach Buddy Morris, Carolina Panthers strength coach Joe Kenn, and Cincinnati Bengals strength coach Chip Morton all have their guys do a ton of bilateral and unilateral squat, deadlift, hip thrust, reverse hyper, and back extension variations.

Bert Sorin and I hanging out with legendary strength coach Buddy Morris

Hanging out with legendary strength coach Buddy Morris and Sorinex President Bert Sorin – neither of these guys “just squat”


As you can see, the “just squat” bro is advising you to do something that no bikini competitor, no fitness model, no pro bodybuilder, no elite powerlifter, and no pro athlete actually does. He’s advising you to do something that is refuted by the literature, and he’s recommending something that doesn’t make logical sense.

Moreover, the “just squat” bro typically doesn’t train any clients. If he did, he’d quickly expand his arsenal, as I’ve never seen a successful personal trainer who has his clients just squat for lower body development.

If the “just squat” bro feels that you should prioritize the squat and focus on progressive overload, then this could be very good advice depending on the person. But if this were the case, it would be ideal for him to rephrase his statement as, “that looks like a cool exercise – I recommend that you also do your squats and try to put some more weight on the bar or do another rep or two every couple of weeks.” Unfortunately, the “just squat” bro usually isn’t considerate enough to word his statements tactfully.

Something tells me that if the “just squat” bro were told that he’d be given a million dollars if he added two inches of glute mass to his hips in a month, he’d do more than just squat. Something also tells me that if the “just squat” bro spent a few days reading the literature on metabolic stress in relation to muscle hypertrophy, or if he spent some time studying the regimens of those who successfully achieved glute transformations, he’d recommend to do more than just squat. Finally, something tells me that if the “just squat” bro spent a few months attaining mastery of the various glute exercises he shuns, he’d end up liking them, he’d keep them in his programming, and he’d recommend them to others.

Speaking from personal experience, my glute workouts feel much more complete if when I follow squats or deadlifts up with hip thrusts or high rep back extensions. Squats can get my glutes very sore, and deadlifts can make my glutes feel like they’re going to rip off of the femur, but for a complete workout, you also want to achieve a deep burn in the glutes and attain a glute pump (HERE are some ideas on this topic). The latter goal is best achieved through targeted movements that keep more constant tension on the glutes. If you want your glutes to thrive, do more than just squat. In addition, if you want your hammies to thrive, do more than just squat.


Definitely squat! And hip thrust. And deadlift. And lunge. And back extension. And lateral band walk. Hammer the glutes from multiple angles for best results.

Sasha’s Glute Transformation Story

Sasha’s Glute Transformation Story
by Sasha Ann

I have been bodybuilding for almost 2 years now and I love it! Although I’ve come a long way in that period of time, it took a lot of hard work, dedication, failures and successes. When I first started training at my local gym, I was only familiar with the “sculpting” and “toning” workouts that were seen in fitness magazines. My diet consisted of processed foods that were advertised as “low-fat” or “healthy” frozen meals. I was working out consistently, doing aimless amounts of cardio and afraid to lift heavy in fear of looking too muscular.

I know many other females who share the same story, and being a trainer I know it all too well. I was not reaching my goals but instead hitting plateaus. I wanted to be shredded while building my glutes, but I couldn’t seem to develop muscle while losing bodyfat at the same time.

With the help of friends, I began prepping for my first NPC show. I wanted to learn about my own body and in turn help others realize their own potential through proper nutrition and exercise.


The pictures above are from when I first started prepping up until a month away from my competition. I was doing 5 day splits (shoulders & abs, back & bis, chest & tris, quads and hamstrings on different days). My leg days consisted of squats, leg press, lunges and step ups. I didn’t know anything more than these go-to exercises. I was happy with my results but I knew I could look better. I thought I was doing everything right, but something was definitely missing. After my show, I took some time off to learn more about training. My mother, having been supportive of my bodybuilding lifestyle, introduced me to Bret Contreras’ book Strong Curves.

Through reading his book, I suddenly discovered what I was missing. I was clearly not training my glutes optimally! I started to add hip thrusts, reverse hypers and deadlifts to my workouts, along with dynamic warm-ups (glute bridges, sumo walks and side lying clam raises) before my leg day for glute activation. After I started seeing a change in my shape, I made a plan to start a new split for my second show. Upper body push, glutes, upper body pull, legs, rest and a second glute day. I did this for my entire prep and the results were unimaginable!


Above is the difference between my first show, NPC Charlotte Cup, compared to my second show, IFBB North Americans, after incorporating specialized glute training two times a week. This transformation took 16 weeks! I finally got that hour-glass shape I was hoping for. Not only did I learn a lot aesthetically about the glutes, but biomechanically as well. I was able to focus on what exercises worked the different parts of the glutes and realized that to gain that round shape you would have to incorporate variety.


This is the most recent picture of my transformation. I can’t believe I was able to obtain all of this in a little less than a year! I’m in a much better position come time for next contest prep.  Aside from my results, I have learned so much about training, and that’s what’s most important to me. I am now able to understand proper glute progression so that I am able to teach my clients how to achieve the same results. I’m also a better-rounded athlete. I can run faster, lift heavier and I have great balance. Just goes to show you how important glute training is for your entire body.

Bret has unknowingly helped my fitness career not only through his book but by posting knowledgeable training advice through his blog and videos. I look up to him greatly. Thanks Bret, for everything!

Below is a sample video of my glute training. I did this workout last week. Notice the variety and multiple directions of resistance. I feel that this is key for optimal glute building.

But the story goes on. Here is a more recent progress picture as I started leaning out.


And here is my latest competition picture. As you can see, the added glute mass is vital so that after dieting down and attaining low levels of body fat, there’s still shape to be seen.


Author Bio:

Sasha is an NPC bikini competitor, Dymatize Nutrition athlete, ISSA Certified Trainer and online trainer. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook and visit her webpage at www.sashaannefitness.com