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Reps, Sets & Tempo Applications

A significant amount of peer-reviewed literature suggests the amount of resistance used for a specific exercise is probably the single most important variable in strength training.

- (Fleck & Kraemer 1987) -


The amount of weight lifted (the load) determines how much tension is imposed upon a muscle, and how much tension is imposed upon a muscle determines the strength training response. We must first understand this definition in order to proceed; as it captivates the correlation of reps, sets and tempo. LIsted below are factors that must be understood in which APX elicits the Poliquin Performance Principles (PPP's) into our culture.


The number of reps for a given time under tension dictates the training effect. How much weight an athlete lifts during a set gives the coach immediate feedback about how closely athletes are working to their maximum capacity. To increase training intensities using conventional resistance training, a coach can either have his or her athletes work at a higher percentage of maximum ability (lifting heavier weights) or have them move the weight faster during the concentric portion of an exercise. Regarding the second point, proponents of the “super-slow” weight training programs often claim that their protocols are more intense than conventional programs.


However, reducing the speed of movement of an exercise merely increases the muscle’s time under tension, not the intensity.

Although the number of reps an athlete performs influences the training effect, it’s also important to consider the speed at which these reps are performed. The number of reps you select will fall on a neuromuscular axis. This theory states that for a given tempo of execution, lower repetitions emphasize neural adaptation and higher repetitions emphasize muscular adaptation. The scientific basis for this premise has been proven repeatedly. Groups training with low reps achieved greater gains in maximal strength; groups training with higher reps achieved greater gains in strength-endurance. (Lower reps emphasize neural adaptation, and higher reps emphasize muscular adaptation).


At APX, it's of absolute great importance that you recognize what specific strength quality for repetitions you are prescribing for the desired training effect for your program(s) or client(s). Certain populations that we rotate between in-season and off-season programmings can differentiate from one school or client to the next per their training history and functionality level. One population might need more body fat-to-mass help - along with function- therefore prescribing rep ranges of 6-12. While others need relative (1-5) and/or endurance (13+).


Maximal voluntary contractions are essential to the strength training process. The foundation of all successful resistance training programs is the inclusion of maximal voluntary contractions (Fleck & Schutt 1985, MacDougall 1986 - PPP). Maximal voluntary contractions can be defined as “the attempt to recruit as many motor units as possible to develop force.” This definition has some limitations, because neural mechanisms may inhibit a trainee's ability to exert maximal force. However, if the trainee isn't pushing to their 100% capability of performing exercise correctly - the science we put forward is useless and the only real thing you are accomplishing as a coach is creating caloric burn (work; pushing a lawn mower). Congratulations, that is the pure description of the majority of fitness and strength programs in this country. The extent of effort applied influences the training effect. If you do not apply the overload principle in designing your workouts, there will be no way for your trainees to become stronger. We must must periodically force them to use higher loads or they will not experience gains in strength or size.


It is the brain’s intent that determines the training effect, not the actual velocity of the bar. The brain’s intent determines the adaptation to high-speed lifting. “Concentrating on acceleration” while reaching muscle failure will result in the same adaptation as would lifting in high speed, as long as you concentrate on accelerating the load. The key in power training for athletes is to keep the repetitions low (1-5) so the high-threshold motor units are recruited. Training with higher reps (10-12), even concentrating on acceleration, would still access lower-threshold fibers more so than if the reps were done at a medium tempo. Training with loads moved purposefully slow will move the force-time curve forward the right, which translates to less power even though the levels of maximal strength may have increased.


Elite or high motor function athletes; pay attention to specificity of contraction force. When training those with several years of lifting experience or high function. However, the decision to determine the extent of fatigue an advanced trainee should work towards involves a number of factors. Before deciding to work to complete muscular failure on each set, you must consider the trainee’s ability to recover from this type of training. Therefore, you must also try to determine if the training approach will optimize the training effect. Other factors for application consideration:


  • Use 70-100% of maximum capacity to develop maximum strength. Discuss at Certification

  • The range in repetitions for strength training decreases with training age. Discuss at Certification.

  • The intensity-zone repetition bracket is specific to the muscle. Discuss at Certification.

  • Long-term aerobic work modifies the 1RM continuum. Discuss at Certfication.

  • The number of repetitions is the loading parameter that athletes adapt to most quickly. Because the body adapts very quickly to a given rep range, frequently adding variation to rep prescriptions is necessary to ensure optimal progress. Most athletes adapt to a given number of repetitions in six workouts.

  • The function of the muscle dictates the number of reps. Form dictates function, and there are specific repetition ranges that are more appropriate for certain muscle functions. For example, training the knee flexors with sets of 12 reps appears to have little effect on hypertrophy gains; but when training the knee extensors, sets of up to 50 reps can induce hypertrophy. The reason for this is most likely that knee flexors are mostly used for explosive tasks while the knee extensors are used in maintaining posture against gravity and repeated stretch-shortening tasks such as rowing (PPP).

  • The velocity of the contraction determines the load in eccentric contraction. When prescribing eccentric work, a coach should have a good understanding of the time under tension prescribed for the lowering of the load. If the target is sets of 3 with 8 seconds lowering, the exercise should be immediately stopped if the athlete cannot meet the time restriction. For example, if an athlete is told to lower 300 pounds for 3 reps of 8 seconds in a squat and repetition 1 is performed for a smooth 8 seconds, but repetition 2 lasts only 5 seconds, the set should be stopped immediately. Another repetition would probably be done at a pace that could be too risky and lead to injury. DO NOT INFLUENCE THE TRAINEE TO PERPETUATE DIS-FUNCTIONAL REPETITION. That is not APX; that is something different that starts with a 'B' and ends with an 'S'.


An example of APX program design and rep progression:


Workouts 1-2: 4 sets x 6-8 reps

Workouts 3-4: 5 sets x 5-7 reps

Workouts 5-6: 5 sets x 4-6 reps

Workouts 7-8: 6+ sets x 2-4 reps


Individualize the rep prescription. The unique qualities of the individual athlete must be addressed when designing a workout. Some athletes respond better to rapid changes of reps and sets (every 1-2 weeks), while others respond better to less rapid changes (every 3-4 weeks). Many factors that influence the rate of adaptation to training are genetic, such as muscle fiber makeup, systemic recovery rate and hormonal response. Athletes in the so-called nervous-system sports (throws and 100-meter sprint) adapt much more rapidly to strength-training prescriptions (PPP).


::: Listed below are additonal factors we will discuss at the Cert :::


  • Low repetitions (1-5) must be used with high loads (85 percent or higher) for both relative and absolute strength.

  • Mid-reps (6-12) must be used with submaximal loads (70-84% for absolute strength gains.

  • High reps should be combined with light loads for strength/endurance (less than 70 percent).

  • There should be no more than a 10% intensity spread for a rep bracket. By keeping the intensity spread at 10-12 percent, workouts will respect the Law of Repeated Efforts, and the body’s adaptive mechanisms will not be confused by wide variation in training intensity.

  • Vary reps for the upper body more than for the lower body. Research shows that periodization models using greater variation in intensities were more beneficial in upper-body exercises than in lower-body exercises.

  • Use drop sets to create maximal tension on the neuromuscular level.

  • Trainees with more weight training experience who are interested in absolute strength increases can afford to train with a wider spectrum of reps.

  • New trainees require higher repetitions.

  • Use lower reps with eccentric training. Eccentric work is best accomplished with sets of 1-6 reps.

  • The muscle fiber type dictates the number of reps.

  • Don’t perform low reps too frequently. Russian sport scientist who specialized in training competitive weightlifters suggested that training loans be distributed among intensity zones and the most successful weightlifters tended to do most of their sets in the 3RM-4RM range. This finding was supported by Pierre Roy, Canada’s most successful weightlifting coach, who thought the average rep for a strength athlete should be about 3 (PPP).

  • Each muscle group or lift responds best to a specific average rep range.

  • The skill requirements of the exercise dictate the number of reps. If an exercise involves multiple joints in a complex skill, such as Olympic lifts, too many reps will result in undesired technical and motor-learning changes.

  • Intensity dictates hormonal response.


The number of repetitions dictates the load (Rep, tempo & set bracket). Understand the desired training effect, then select a repetition bracket to suit that goal. If you’re writing a program to maximize muscle mass, select a load that enables the athlete to complete between 6 and 12 reps. If the athlete can perform only 5 reps with the weight, the weight is too heavy; if the athlete can perform 13 reps, the weight is too light. If relative strength is the primary goal, choose reps at a given tempo that do not exceed 20 seconds of time under tension (TUT). We will review all Strength Qualities on the days of your Certification. For example:


3 reps at a 4020 tempo yielding a TUT of 18 seconds per set

4 reps at a 3011 tempo yielding a TUT of 20 seconds per set

2 reps at a 3210 tempo yielding a TUT of 12 seconds per set

2 reps at a 8010 tempo yielding a TUT of 18 seconds per set


This repetition bracket is also valuable in sports that require the expression of maximal strength for a single contraction, such as weight lifting, shot put and the high jump. Training with high loads is highly effective for these activities because it has a specific effect on the nervous system. Exercising with near-maximal loads is also beneficial to the athlete because it increases adjunctive skills such as timing of mobilization of willpower and the ability to switch from relaxation to tension.


APX uses a four-digit system to represent the (TUT) Time Under Tension or Tempo for  strength training repetitions/sets:


4 - 2 - X - 1


  1. The first number (4) is the eccentric lowering (lowering the resistance, such as going down in the squat or bringing the bar to your chest in a bench press). This is when the muscle is being placed under stretch.

  2. The second number (2) is the time of the pause in the stretched position. The pause, an isometric contraction, is usually between the eccentric (lowering) phase and concentric (lifting) phase. Examples of the concentric or lifting phase include the bottom position in a squat, or when the bar makes contact with the chest in the bench press.

  3. The third number (X) is the concentric contraction: lifting the weight (such as raising in the squat or pressing the bar at arm’s length in the bench press). The muscle is shortening. An “X” instead of a number is used to denote “as fast as possible” or “explosive action with full acceleration.”

  4. The fourth number (1) is the time of pause in the contracted position, such as the top of a curl or a chin-up.  

Please open the PDF 'Lower Emphasis; Accumulation 2.1' workout, familiarize yourself with the outline and structure of the template as this is the vehicle we use to deliver the APX system. You will notice the names and descriptions of the exercises, the order in which they should be completed, sets, reps, tempos, rest intervals, descriptions and spaces that allot you to track each trainee's progressionas with resistance/reps. If this looks confusing it's okay.. The Performance Director will explain and thoroughly review everything the time of your certification.

Manipulating Sets for Optimal Strength Gains


Multiple sets lead to higher and faster rates of strength gains.

Usually 1-2 sets are enough for beginners as a training stimulus, but after 6-12 workout sessions the coach must increase an athlete’s volume of training because the muscles will have adapted (Fleck & Kraemer 1987). If the volume is not increased, progress will slow down and plateau for extended periods. The coach must realize the first 30 percent of strength gains come from the improvement of intermuscular coordination. In effect, athletes “learn” to lift so that they become more efficient by being able to turn on the systems that are needed to turn off those that are not. Once an initial strength fitness is reached, a multiple presentation of the stimulus (3-6 sets) with specific rest periods between sets is superior to a single presentation of the stimulus. It’s important to perform this increase progressively.


The number of sets is subject to the law of diminishing returns.

Even though multiple sets induce much greater maximal strength gains than single-set training protocols, the adaptations increase with the number of sets up to a certain point. The number of sets is subject to the Law of Diminishing Returns in that the relative reward for every set diminishes with each additional set. This principle explains why, when time is limited, such as during the competitive season of a professional sport, it’s important to perform 1-2 sets of an exercise to maintain or gain maximal strength. Without the stimulation above the demands of the sport that is provided by these sets, the law comes into play, and the athletes strength can begin to diminish.


More reps, the fewer the sets.

There is a minimum threshold of work that must be performed for optimal size and strength gains. Many strength training coaches have suggested there is an inverse relationship between the number of sets and the number of reps. When using low reps, do a high number of sets; when using high reps, do a low number of sets. From the perspective of practical application, the fewer reps an athlete performs per set, the more training response. This is because there is a minimal optimal volume for strength development. When training with low reps, a higher number of sets would ensure enough loading time. The rule to remember is that the higher the neural training effect desired, the higher the number of sets needed.


To prevent overtraining, cut back on sets first - not intensity. We - and our trainees - all have bad days due to forms of stress at home, school and life in general. Make certain you are keen on picking up on this, on those particular 'bad' days; anything over 20 minutes of training time becomes disbeneficial. If stress outside the training room is identified, cut back on the training time and/or sets. However, keep the intensity up for whatever work your trainee is doing for the time you have them. 


Performing higher numbers of sets creates the following factors in your athlete(s)/populations:


  • Develops skill in activating specific movement patterns; specialization phase

  • Increases metabolic costs

  • Specific set-to-rep combinations are dicsovered within this parameter

  • Greater hormonal response

  • Nutrition & Supplementation needs are exemplified

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