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.

kellie

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).

trap-bar-dead

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.

squat

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.

Arny

36 Comments

  • Paul says:

    Very clear & helpful. Thanks, Bret!

  • Mark Hilton says:

    So, every set is to failure?

    Do you usually prescribe all sets to failure? Do you feel it’s a good strategy?

    • Bret says:

      Mark, no not to complete failure. Maybe 2 reps left in the tank for first set, 1 rep left in the tank for second set, and 3rd set to failure. But form stays good, full ROM is used, and there’s no grinding out reps or rest pauses. Good question!

  • ipek says:

    So why lots of people do 4 sets? Nowadays just begginers do 3 sets. What should we do

    • Bret says:

      I prefer 3 sets (or even 2 sets sometimes), but you’re right, most lifters do 4 sets. I like utilizing a variety of movements, and you can get more movements in when you do less sets per exercise. Many ways can work well.

    • Ron says:

      It depends on whether you’re a beginner or intermediate lifter, a beginner will do 3 sets two or three times a week for a total of 9 sets per week and an intermediate lifter will do 4 or 5 sets twice a week for a similar number of sets per week just spread out differently.

  • Jeff says:

    Thank you for this article! For endurance such as trail running, would you recommend this approach for hip and leg work?

  • Konstantinos says:

    excellent article. I do the same with pull ups, i use only my bodyweight and i do 3 sets of 5, but i increase the tempo every time, i go slower every time. What do you think about ?is a good way to increase strength and mass in the same time?

  • Scott says:

    Great article, I really want to start applying this to my training. The Joe DeFranco DVD that you learned this idea from, was it the Strong DVD ?

    Thank you

  • Sol says:

    Bret, pushing for either weight or rep PRs like this on every session seems extremely strenuous
    I know personally I wouldn’t be able to keep it up for more than a month
    what kind of periodization do you prescribe for this system?

    • Will Vatcher says:

      I have all my guy and myself use 3 sets to failure with the same weight on most exercises. I detest pyramids, I think they are a jack of all trades technique. We all use 30 secs rest for all accessory work with no probs, very time efficient and result producing. If there is a lagging muscle the sets are increases but the rest remain the same or less

  • Lori says:

    Bret, I have a couple of your books and follow your blog. Great information.What are your favorite gym sneakers for women who are following your program ? I love sumo’s,shoulder elevated bb hip thrust, front squat,kettlebells, ect. I’m looking for a multi tasker that gets me through my training. I have Chuck Taylors, Inov, and Puma.Each of these have their own merit but I don’t love them for everything. Thanks for your time and energy that you put into your work.

    • Derrick Blanton says:

      1. Adidas Sala? It’s a lightweight indoor soccer shoe with good arch support, and nice ground friction.

      2. New Balance Minimus, the trail version.

      3. I also love the dreaded “toe shoes”. I use Adidas, son likes Vibrams.

  • JohnFinn says:

    Simple and Effective. Periodization is key to progress.

  • ggs2013 says:

    I like the idea of a total number of reps …It will make things easier for me coming back from injury and rehab…My one shoulder is significantly weaker so this will allow me to work them both equally but different….Thanks for the info

  • Cláudia Maria says:

    Hi Bret! How much days per week i should train my legs/glutes for muscle gains? I use to train 3/4 days but my coach says it’s too much… i’m confused

    • Will Vatcher says:

      2 high intensity/low volume days and 2 moderate intensity high volume days per week are optimal If you are well conditioned. Everything else should be small extra workouts at no more than 60% of the volume of your larger workouts(you can use time as a guage of volume I.e large sessions 60 mins, small ones 35 mins) and generally the rep ranges should change in these extra sessions

  • Thank you for simplifying the concept and giving real, actual numbers I can implement right away. Now I can plan to succeed with confidence! You da man.

    • Will Vatcher says:

      Elise, drop me an email if you want more details. I’ve done a dew blogs for Bret, about-muscle and t-nation and my email is in those sites on the author bio pages

  • Scott says:

    Nice work on these posts ! Keep up the great content! Thanks!

  • Joe says:

    Hey Brett, love this approach and will impliment it.

    Was just about to set up a program when I thought about tempo.

    Would you have any discussion of how to manage tempo along side this great method of programming?

  • Ondrej says:

    Hello Bret,
    what’s your current opinion of effort vs ideal time under load, especially in relation to bodyweight only workouts? I have hard time believing that for example 3 sets of 30 push ups could be as benefitial to hypertrophy as harder variation of exercise with shorter TUL for the same effort. But if high reps were equally effective it would save people a lot of tracking “to stay in the desired TUL/rep range”. It would make training by feel very effective as long as the achieved RPE is objectively evaluated.

  • scott says:

    Hi Brett,
    great article as always. i like the concept of 3 set total reps. easy and simple. one thing i might have missed you don’t mention TUT within this sets rule. i am assuming you would insist on a specific TUT for max gains? from your standpoint what do you feel is the best TUT for maximising hypertrophy. i have heard 40-45 secs is optimal – do you agree? is there any research supporting the optimal TUT for hypertrophy accessing muscle tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress?

    many thanks

  • dlh says:

    Hey Bret,

    I just got around to reading this article, it’s pretty old so you may not even see this reply. I’m writing to “nag” you on a grammatical error. : )
    You used the word “hone” where you should have used “home”. One hones (refines, perfects) a skill, yet homes in on a target (think homing pigeon, homing device). Just saying . . . it’s one of my pet peeves. Thanks for listening! : )

  • Forest says:

    Based on data derived from training recommendations of various coaches, and my own experimentation with these protocols, as well as my experience (as a mathematician) in finding formulas to summarize data I have arrived at an empirical rule of thumb for time under load that I call the “square root hypothesis:”

    The muscular “micro-trauma” or “fiber fatigue” induced by one set of reps of an exercise is proportional to the square root of the time under tension for that set assuming the tension is constant throughout the set and the set is continued to near failure.

    If this hypothesis is true, a single set lasting 144 seconds (2.4 minutes) has only twice the “fatigue value” of a set lasting for 36 seconds, as long as both sets are done to the same degree of failure or near failure (i.e. to the same “rate of perceived exertion”) by the same person.

    Under this hypothesis the following workouts are roughly equivalent:

    One set to failure of 144 seconds
    Two sets to failure of 36 seconds each.
    Three sets to failure of 16 seconds each.
    Four sets to failure of 9 seconds each.

    According to this theory the number of reps is not directly relevant. If you change the number of reps, you will have to adjust the tension to get the same time to failure or near failure.

    However, if you prefer counting reps to counting seconds, you can measure TU in reps per set instead of seconds per set, as long as the sets being compared are done at the same constant cadence. In other words, number of reps per set is a valid proxy for the number of seconds per set as long as you are consistent.

    If you like spontaneous workouts, pick a reasonable weight and do reps to near failure. Record the time under load and label it T1. If the square root of this number is less than your goal number (12 in the example), pick another weight and do another set to failure and record the time T2. If the square root of T1 plus the square root of T2 is at least twelve (or whatever your goal number is), go on to some other exercise, otherwise continue until the sum of the square roots of the TUL’s reaches or surpasses your goal for that particular exercise for the day.

    If this empirical rule is approximately true, it should largely replace current methods of comparing the potential effectiveness of so many sets of so many reps at such and such a cadence at such and such a percentage of the 1RM.

    Anybody interested is experimenting with it?

    Here’s another application: The Tabata protocol suggests a workout of eight sets (or intervals) of 20 seconds each. If each set (or interval) is done to near failure this results in a “micro trauma” score of 8 time the square root of twenty, which rounds to 36, or three times the fatigue effect achieved by the guy who does one interval to failure of 2.4 minutes (assuming a constant load and cadence for each set of squats and a constant speed and incline for each interval of sprinting). No wonder this grueling protocol has proven so effective in comparison to other HIIT protocols involving fewer, but longer intervals at less intensity.

    Note that Tabata restricts recovery to ten seconds between sets. If you follow this suggestion you will have to reduce the speed (or incline) of each successive sprint interval (or the load of each successive set of squats) if you want to complete each twenty second interval (or set).

    A calculator or table of square roots can come in handy. For starters here are some TUL square roots that result in integer or half-integer values:

    4 sec –> 2 fatigue units
    6 sec –> 2.5 fatigue units
    9 sec –> 3 fatigue units
    12 sec –> 3.5 fatigue units
    16 sec –> 4 fatigue units
    20 sec –> 4.5 fatigue units
    25 sec –> 5 fatigue units
    30 sec –> 5.5 fatigue units
    36 sec –> 6 fatigue units
    42 sec –> 6.5 fatigue units
    49 sec –> 7 fatigue units
    56 sec –> 7.5 fatigue units
    64 sec –> 8 fatigue units
    72 sec –> 8.5 fatigue units
    81 sec –> 9 fatigue units
    90 sec –> 9.5 fatigue units
    100 sec –> 10 fatigue units

    If your TUL for a set comes out between two of these tabulated times, for example 51 seconds, just go with the nearest tabulated time (in this case 49 secs which is closer to 51secs than 56secs) for a fatigue value of 7units.

    I posted a slightly shorter version of this as a comment to an article of Drew Baye about repetition speed. However Drew is of the “one-set-to-failure” school, so combining TUL’s across multiple sets is of little interest to him.

    Implicit to my Tabata protocol application above is the notion that this hypothesis applies to HIIT as well as to strength training. It is the beginning of a unified theory of intervals and sets.

    Spread the word!

    Forest

  • Nic says:

    Hi Bret,
    Great article, thank you! Just wondering – I find that it takes me quite a few weeks before I can increase the weight and even reps on certain lifts, e.g., I have been stuck on 20kg overhead presses now for about a month and I struggle to do 5 x 5. By the last rep my arms are shaking and I’m pretty sure I’m at muscular failure by then. But each time I lift, I try and perfect my form, even if the weight itself isn’t increasing or even the reps. Similarly, on resistance band pull ups I can only do 3 sets of 8 reps most weeks, but I can tell that my form is improving slowly each time and it’s becoming easier, although not enough to do more reps etc!
    Is this still a form of progressive training and am I getting the same benefits, or is it just that I’m lifiting too heavy to start with?
    Thanks 🙂

  • brittany says:

    Hi Bret,
    I am wondering how you feel about warmup sets? I generally do 3 warm up sets for squats and deadlifts and then 4 working sets or 6 reps. I’m not sure if this is too much. Should I be doing higher reps for glute focused movements than hip hinge or quad dominant movements? I always do slightly higher reps (3 sets of 10-12) for glute focused exercises. I do 3 sets of 8-10 for hyperextensions, 3-4 sets of 8 for lunges and split squats and 2 sets of 10-15 for abductor work. i am definitely a mesomorph and seem to respond to different programs very quickly and want to make sure I’m accomplishing my full potential when it comes to my glutes (my legs have always been muscular so I never isolate my quads or hamstrings). For my workouts I generally do an abductor exercise for 2×10-15, a quad dominant exercises for 3-4×6-8, a hip hinge movements for 3-4×6-10 and then a glute focused exercises (“donkey kicks” with the glute machine, barbell hip thrusts or bridges and once a week do 3×15-20 single leg bridges or hip thrusts. I don’t seem to be responding as quickly as I was and I’m not sure if this is just how it goes or if I need to adjust some things. I train my lower body 3x/week. I have read a lot of your articles as well as stronger curves and am just trying to sort out the best method for me.
    Thanks for all the information you provide!

  • Claire Robinson says:

    Great article! Really informative and helpful but im still a little confused . I’m a 36 year old female wishing to lose fat and tone up . Should I be training for strength with low reps and high weight or endurance with high reps and low weight??

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