The manipulation of sets, reps, and weight increments is probably one of the most confusing and tedious aspects of effective programming for strength training.
However, as I often tell my clients “the devil is in the details.” This is one of the great challenges of programming. And the devilish details are the subject of this article.
Arranging the weekly schedule and the order of exercises is fairly easy. This is in part due to the fact that there are only a handful of arrangements that actually work well.
Unless you adhere to the old Weider “muscle confusion” principle, there are not an infinite amount of exercises to choose from that all work with equal effectiveness. It’s quite easy to stratify exercises in terms of their effectiveness, and that stratification easily determines the level of attention and priority they receive in the weekly schedule and in each individual workout.
Where the rubber meets the road in programming is how we manipulate volume and intensity (determined by sets/reps/weight/frequency) from day to day, week to week, or month to month. This is the tricky part because it tends to be so highly individual and the same formulas do not apply to every lifter or every lift.
Another challenging aspect of programming is rate of progression. In other words how much should each lifter add to the bar each workout? Or should they even add weight at all? Is it better in some circumstances to say, keep the weight on the bar the same but increase reps? Or add a set? Should you add weight but drop the reps? If you drop the reps should you add more weight than normal? How often should I drop the reps? If I drop the rep range down, when do I go back up again?
There are other questions that pop up as well, but these are particularly frequent.
One method I have come to rely on heavily with my clients is what I call the Alternating Rung Method of progression. This system involves weekly progression so technically this qualifies as intermediate level programming – although the nature of the progression is not as straight forward as many of my clients are used to, and many view it as slower than what they might like. The argument is that this methodology is steady. It tends to produce far fewer and less frequent stalls, and in the long run this saves time. Conservative yes. But I’d rather have a year of conservative progress than 6 month of aggressive progress followed by another 6 months fumbling around in the dark trying to replicate the previous 6 months.
Simple entry-level intermediate level programming involves adding weight to the bar once per week. For instance, someone following basic Texas Method style programming would focus their efforts on a weekly improvement of their 5RM strength on each of the main lifts. This means that once per week the objective is simply to add 2-5 lbs for 1 set of 5 reps on each of their main lifts. Simple.
So why not just do that all the time? Unfortunately simple weekly progression does not stay simple for long.
Within Practical Programming for Strength Training, we introduced 2 primary mechanisms for sustaining longer term weekly progression – “running it out” and “alternating rep ranges.”
The Alternating Rung Method is a variation of “alternating rep ranges” as described in PPST3, with just a little bit more complexity.
We’ll use The Squat as an example of how to set this up.
What I like to have my clients do is start with heavy sets of 6-reps. Depending on exactly what type of program you are running, this could be a single set of 6, or multiple sets across. For our example, we will use just a single set of 6 reps for the sake of simplicity.
On week 1, we will say that our hypothetical trainee does a set of 6 reps with 300 lbs.
In week 2 the client will perform a set of 4 reps with 320 lbs (that’s a 20 lb increase for those of you who struggle with math).
In week 3 the client will perform a set of 2 reps with 340 lbs – another 20 lb jump.
In week 4 the client will increase the reps back to 5 and decrease the weight – 310 lbs for a set of 5 reps. Notice that the 5 rep set is right in the middle of what was done for a set of 6 and a set of 4.
In week 5 the client will perform a set of 3 reps with 330 lbs.
In week 6 the client performs a heavy single with 350.
In week 7 the cycle starts over again at sets of 6. This time with 305×6. Just a little bit more than what you did for 6 reps last time.
Below is a sample progression of 12 weeks’ worth of training.
(We will refer to weeks 1-3 and weeks 4-6 as mini-cycles. We will refer to the entirety of weeks 1-6 (or 2 mini-cycles) as a mesocycle).
Week 1: 300×6
Week 2: 320×4
Week 3: 340×2
Week 4: 310×5
Week 5: 330×3
Week 6: 350×1
Week 7: 305×6
Week 8: 325×4
Week 9: 345×2
Week 10: 315×5
Week 11: 335×3
Week 12: 355×1
In case you are confused, let me try to further clarify. In the above example we use increases of 20, 10, and 5 lbs at various points in the program. These are the Alternating Rungs.
Twenty pound jumps are used within each 3-week mini-cycle: Between the 6s, 4s, and 2s. And then again between 5s, 3s, and 1s.
Ten pound jumps are used between mini-cycles one (6-4-2) and mini-cycle two (5-3-1). So between 6 and 5 is a 10 lb increase. Between 4 and 3 is a 10 lb increase and between 2 and 1 is a 10 lb increase.
Five pound weight increases are used to start a new 6 week mesocycle (642531 is a six-week cycle).
Twenty, ten, and 5 lb weight increases are just an example for the Squat, for a lifter at this particular level of strength. A stronger lifter might use even bigger increments – especially on say, the deadlift.
A weaker lifter, or someone applying this method to the Bench or the Press might use smaller increments. For instance, a hypothetical progression might go like this:
Week 1: 100×6
Week 2: 110×4
Week 3: 120×2
Week 4: 105×5
Week 5: 115×3
Week 6: 125×1
Week 7: 102.5×6
Week 8: 112.5×4
Week 9: 122.5×2
Week 10: 107.5×5
Week 11: 117.5×3
Week 12: 127.5×1
In this instance the lifter uses 10 lb increments within a 3 week minicycle, 5 lb increments between 3 week minicycles, and 2.5 lb increments to start a new 6 week mesocycle for the Press.
If you are confused about how to progress, when to progress, and you keep running into walls try introducing this style of programming into your training. This level of complexity is not necessary for early intermediate lifters. However, if you’ve been plugging away at weekly progression for more than a few months then this method might be just the thing that gets you unstuck. And the plus side is that it can keep you unstuck for many months with little to no changes to the programming.