Conceptualizing My Theory On Set Count As A Means Of Calculating Volume.
So if you have watched any of my YouTube videos on programming, you would know I tend to equate my understanding of volume by set count, not total tonnage. If I have a lifter who squats 9 total sets a week, I will have them perform 9 sets regardless of the rep scheme, for the most part. Part of this is due to that I tend to not program above 6 reps outside of bench press (see my post on high rep deadlifts to see my theorization of how higher rep sets can be of benefit though). And the other part of it is that I’ve just never felt like equating volume through matching sets x reps has been truly effective. I think the main argument is due to absolute load increases, in that 3×7 @ 8 RPE versus 7×3 @ 8 RPE just isn’t the same due to the change in weight on the bar. That concept has been fairly agreed upon. But then is 3×3 @ 8 RPE really the same as 3×7 @ 8 RPE? I’ve gone back and forth with conceptualizing how and why 3×3 and 3×7 are similar and why I do not increase set count (due to the results I’ve seen with my lifters) to something like 4×3 or 5×3 to better match the total tonnage. To me seeing the results is great, but I also am striving to understand why the outcome is what it is. So let’s nerd out on some powerlifting programming theory.
What got me thinking about this originally was from the understanding of submaximal training and intra-set fatigue through the lens of the theories that the guys from @datadrivestrength have put out recently. This ideology allows us to see basically two parts within a set, at least in my understanding and what I’ve taken from their ideas. We have the reps that are specific to force production, and the reps that are more specific to the velocity of a 1RM, which these two parts can be the same thing at times. As well as velocity is not always 1RM specific based on the fatigued accumulated that creates the velocity loss. I do not really buy into the idea of “effective reps”, but instead would rather look at it as that there is a very obvious increase in fatigue as we reach closer to failure. @ 6 RPE, @ 7 RPE, @ 8 RPE, @ 9 RPE, and @ 10 RPE does not have some perfectly linear increase in fatigue. But instead as we reach closer and closer to a 10 RPE, fatigue starts to disproportionately increase. So as we accumulate reps of higher RPE, we accumulate some disproportionate level of fatigue. Just for sake of this conceptualized theory, let’s say anything below a 6 RPE does not accumulate any meaningful fatigue, and only 6 RPE and above really shows noticeable levels of fatigue accumulation or intra-set fatigue. If we do 3×7 @ 8 RPE and 3×3 @ 8 RPE, we have accumulated the same number of fatiguing reps of 6 RPE or above. This doesn’t mean effective reps though, as I am not sure that thought process applies to strength training near as well. In principle based on this concept, even though volume is not equated, fatigue is equated for the most part. Does the prior 4 prior reps before 6 RPE on the sets of 7 have some effect? Yes, but that will be independent of each individual lifter. And for many those reps will not be noticeable enough that I believe it then warrants us equating fatigue by adding another set or two to 4×3 or 5×3 to account for that. As well as that is most likely offset to some degree by 3×3 being completed with a heavier absolute load.
Some lifter’s may respond great to both 3×3 and 3×7, but what we do find though within these differences is that some lifters respond best to a certain level of volume. Have them do 3×3 instead of 3×7, and while fatigue is matched, some level of fitness is lost due to the need in some manner for those 12 accumulated non-fatiguing reps prior to 6 RPE. The need for these 12 non-fatiguing reps could be for multiple reasons such as skill practice, hypertrophy volume requirements, distance traveled requirements (see my high rep deadlift post), or the argument @datadrivestrength makes for high force production reps. So the general logic would then be the increase to 4×3 or 5×3 to account for this, but then we see the increase in fatiguing reps.
If we did 4×3 or 5×3, could we just make sure the extra 1 or 2 sets are very submax and back off let’s say 6-10% from the top set weight, which then equates to the same number of fatiguing reps? Possibly, but that’s where I then move into the argument of trying not to over complicate things. The less variables we have to change block to block, the more we can be able to track data of the what, how, and why things are working the way they are. As well as load wise, the load used for those back offs will still likely be heavier than what is used for 3×7 @ 8 RPE. So it just becomes a big list of variables that is hard to manage. And now for each phase of training you need a separate template of the training structure and what the lifter responds to. Instead I’d rather formulate a training structure that can be implemented and used year round, rather than introducing new variables with set count and volume every block.
The next drawback to this theory, is what is my solution if a lifter requires a certain level of volume, but also needs to satisfy heavier absolute loads for specificity? To make this easy and stick with the above example, we could simply have 1×3 @ 8 RPE, then 2×7 @ 8 RPE. We satisfy the need for heavier loads and motor unit recruitment, we equate fatiguing reps, and we satisfy the need for a certain volume level that an individual lifter needs to maintain their fitness level or adaptations occurred. Again this is just an example, and more than likely many lifters I have aren’t doing sets of 7, so equating sets in the 2-6 rep range is much easier and requires a lot less variable manipulation. Which as I’ve mentioned in my videos, is one of the main reasons I tend to stick with most movements being 6 reps or less for most people. It just plainly simplifies things to make it easier to figure out what works, and how to create that same progress block to block long term.
The last caveat to this theory is that I feel safe to say that the vast majority of coaches tend to stay within the 6-8 RPE range, and only at rare times push closer to 9-10 RPE. So in this theory of 6+ RPE being “fatiguing”, with most cases we are incurring 1-3 fatiguing reps. So equating sets of 2-3 to really any other rep scheme is fairly easy when matching fatiguing reps. But what about singles then? Again, if you have watched my YouTube series on programming, you would know I don’t actually count something like a top single towards total set count. It is so minimal in the sense of volume that it’s hard to equate that to any other sets. So while we may not count a top single as a set, we can count it as a fatiguing rep and factor that into average absolute intensity for the session.