Lesson 13: Home-Based Workout Programs and Alternate Progression/Set/Rep Schemes

Table of Contents


Introduction

At this point we have covered all of the basics for generating an effective workout program for general health. We’ve discussed:

  • the underlying physiology relevant to exercise
  • research-based guidance for how to perform exercise for health benefits while making steady progress over time
  • the basics of exercise technique to ensure when we do exercise we do so safely and effectively

Now it is time to pull all of the prior information together to generate well-designed workout programs. We will do this over two lessons, starting here.

In this lesson I will use information shown in several of the prior lessons to create workout programs. These are for individuals of different baseline fitness levels in the home setting. Additionally, I will discuss several progression schemes. These will be viable in a variety of workout settings for individuals of different experience levels. I will then emphasize specifically for home-based workout routines how you can choose to utilize these progression schemes.

Note: You can modify these programs to fit your own needs. If you adjust the programs such that they still fit the basic recommendations from prior lessons then you can feel confident that they will prove effective. As always, consistency and effort are key; it is much better to adjust a program if it will help you remain consistent and push yourself hard.

Also, if the first two programs I list in this lesson seem too long, at the very bottom I include shorter programs that are simpler and quicker to follow. The first two programs are purposely longer with a greater variety of exercises to help show what is possible in the home setting; they do not need to be followed exactly as written.


Home-based exercise programs

I will go over two exercise programs below. These will include:

  • a full body home-based routine without purchasing extra equipment
  • a full body home-based routine with purchasing extra equipment

These specific programs will not include planned progression schemes; I will include a section after these programs that discusses progression schemes in general. Then I will include a section below that describing how to apply them to these programs.


Full body routine in the home without purchasing extra equipment

In this setting we need to make do with what we have. Without buying extra equipment we can still perform many of the relevant movement patterns if we utilize creativity. We can reconsider the exercises discussed in prior lessons and determine ways to do them in the home setting. In the prior exercise lessons I included extra links to YouTube videos in some of the sections that demonstrated ways to perform exercises at home; if you skipped those sections feel free to glance back through them for the links.

Tip: Even without purchasing extra equipment you can still make equipment with what you already have. Examples:

  • Fill a backpack or duffel bag with books and use this for a weight. For lighter weights you can use milk jugs.
  • Stack multiple sturdy trash bags in one another and then fill this water water until it is a desirable weight. For example, you can make a 5 pound trash bag, a 20 pound trash bag, etc. You can wrap them fully in duct tape as added protection to help ensure they do not rip apart. You can even place the trash bags inside of a duffel bag for additional protection.
  • Fill a box with books and then wrap rope around the box to use as a weight.
    • Wrap rope around the box across the top in both directions.
    • Then, wrap a separate piece of rope around the crossing in the center and use this as a handle.
    • If you don’t have rope you can use floss, yarn, or some other string.

Let’s consider some exercises for the major muscle groups that we can do in the home without purchasing extra equipment.

Chest/shoulders/triceps:

  • All of the push-up variations are viable. We can easily elevate our hands or feet on a couch, chairs, bed, table, etc. We can wear a backpack for extra weight.
  • Dips can be done with chairs or a kitchen counter.
  • We can perform shoulder raises while holding onto weights as suggested above. We can also do lateral raises with our arm bent against a wall (see video link below).
  • For the triceps doing close grip pushups or dips with our torso upright will emphasize these more. We can also use a weight to perform one-armed tricep extensions (either lying down on a bed with our arm above our head hanging off the bed or while sitting upright in a chair). Alternatively, we can perform tricep extensions with a kitchen counter (see video link below).
This video demonstrates a few of the above variations and other good options. Some of the exercises in this video incorporate bands; I discuss resistance bands more down below as I consider them additional equipment to be purchased.
 

Back/biceps:

  • We can do inverted rows using a table while keeping our feet on the floor or suspended on a chair. Alternatively, we can take a sturdy bar (ie, a shovel), place it between two chairs that are elevated on books, and hold on to this.
  • Curls are simple to do using weights. Alternatively, we can wrap a towel around a post and curl our body upwards. We can hold onto a doorway with one arm and curl our body into it.
  • If we create heavy enough weights we can do various types of one-armed rows.
  • We can place a towel on the floor, put something relatively heavy on it, and drag it across the floor. If we have a partner one person can hold one end of the towel and offer resistance as we simulate a pull-up or rowing motion.
  • We can do a lat pulldown simulation on a floor with a towel (see video link below).
  • We can lie off the edge of a bed or a couch, hold a weight, and do face pulls or Y raises.
  • Good mornings or standing back extensions are feasible while holding a weight to target the erector spinae.
This video demonstrates a few of the above variations and other good options (part of the same series as the above video).
 

Glutes/thighs:

  • Squats, Bulgarian split squats, lunges, and step-ups are all viable options; extra resistance can be added using the above suggestions.
  • The quadriceps can be targeted with one of a variety of different exercises shown in this video.
  • To simulate leg curls, we can perform one of the several options shown in this video.
  • As a hip hinge movement we can perform one-legged deadlifts while using extra resistance as suggested above. We can alternatively perform hip thrusts using a couch and a support for the legs (see video link below).
  • We can perform lying hip abduction and adduction exercises as shown in Lesson 12.
This video demonstrates a few of the above variations and other good options (part of the same series as the first two videos linked above).
 

Abdominals/forearms/hands/lower legs:

  • Crunches, sit-ups, and side bends (with resistance as suggested above) are viable options.
  • We can do lots of forearm and hand movements with a backpack that has weight in it. We can hold the center strap for wrist flexion/extension as well as radial/ulnar deviation. Alternatively, we can hold a side strap (or even the center) and let the weight fall over our forearm to work on pronation and supination.
  • We can do calf raises and reverse calf raises on stairs.

Once you decide what exercises you want to perform and create the necessary space and equipment, you can then generate a workout program.

Example program:

  • The following image shows an example program. Underneath this image I include relevant points about each exercise as well as variant selection when variants are listed.
  • This consists of two separate full body workouts that are alternated. Only 1 week is shown here but in the subsequent week the workouts should be reversed.
    • This is commonly denoted as an “A-B” schedule. Here, each week has 3 workouts. Week 1 you do “A-B-A”, then week 2 you do “B-A-B”. So, the workout done Wednesday of week 1 is done on Monday and Friday of week 2. This then continues to alternate each week.
  • Importantly, the set and rep ranges are just suggestions. You can make any desired adjustments that fit the general recommendations discussed previously. The progression schemes discussed below show ways you can make alterations.
  • Of note, the last exercise states “AMRAP”, this stands for “as many reps as possible”.

Resistance training component:

  • Squats – place books under the heels if needed for additional ankle mobility.
    • If too difficult: start with assisted squats where you hold onto something. Additionally, you can lower the rep range to 8-12 if 15-20 is too difficult; I listed 15-20 as it may be hard to add enough resistance to make this challenging in the lower rep range.
    • If too easy: add resistance with a backpack or by holding something else that is heavy. Alternatively, consider doing one-legged squats. For example, sit down on a stair or stack of books and stand up with one leg; you can hold onto a handrail or use some sort of pole such as a broom to aid balance.
  • Bulgarian split squats – place the front leg far in front of you so this better targets the glutes and hamstrings (squats will target the quadriceps).
    • If too difficult: put a chair next to you and hold onto it with one hand for support.
    • If too easy: add resistance with a backpack or by holding something else that is heavy.
  • Hip abduction and adduction variants – choose any of the variations shown in Lesson 11 that you are able to do in the home.
    • Pick variations that are an appropriate level of difficulty. If you choose a side-lying option, you can add weight on your hips or legs to increase the difficulty.

Tip: Any time “variant” is listed in a program this gives you the opportunity to choose from several options. Some may find it challenging to pick a variant (ie, “paralysis by analysis”). However, for me to give a broad general program for people of different abilities I have to do this at times; people of different fitness levels and with different equipment access may benefit from different exercises.

In the case of hip abduction and adduction, if the side-lying options are not appealing then another option includes:

  • Sit down on the floor with your right leg in front of you.
  • Place an object that can slide on the floor (ie, a box with books) on the outside of your foot.
  • Abduct your right leg as far as possible by moving your right leg and foot outward against the resistance.
  • Then slightly shift your body and move your leg to the other side of the object. Adduct your leg as far as possible by moving it back towards your other leg.
  • You have now completed 1 rep of abduction and 1 rep of adduction. You can adjust the weight or alter the friction between the box and the floor to change the resistance.
  • Alternatively, if you have enough space to move in a circle, after the first rep of abduction you can rotate your body rightward until your right leg is in an adducted position. Then you can perform a second rep of abduction. Then you can do a full set of abduction and adjust the weight prior to doing a full set of adduction.
  • Lunges
    • If too difficult: do these standing in place without your feet leaving the ground and place chairs next to you. You can then press on the chairs for support.
    • If too easy: pause at the bottom and/or add weight in some way.
  • One-legged hip thrusts
    • If too difficult: do these with two legs. Then, if these are still too difficult, do glute bridges where you lay on the floor and then extend your hips upward.
    • If too easy: pause at the peak contraction (at full hip extension) and place additional weight on your lap.
  • Leg extension and leg curl variants – choose any of the variations shown in the videos above that you are able to do in your home.
    • Pick variations that are an appropriate level of difficulty.
  • Push-up (harder and easier variants)
    • Pick variations from Lesson 9 where it becomes challenging in the specified rep ranges. For any specific variant you can pause with your body near the bottom portion of the rep (but without your body being placed on the floor) to make it more difficult.
  • Dips
    • If too difficult: do the version where your feet are on a chair in front of you and move the chair closer to your torso so more of your leg weight is supported by the chair.
    • If too easy: add weight with a backpack or place a weight on your lap.
  • Lateral raise and triceps variants – choose any of the variations shown in Lesson 9 or the video above that you can do in your home.
    • Pick variations that are an appropriate level of difficulty.
    • If you choose to use a weight for lateral raises and overhead tricep extensions you can adjust the weight as needed.
  • Inverted rows
    • If too difficult: move your feet closer to you on the floor
    • If too easy: suspend your feet higher or add weight with a backpack
  • Lat pulldown simulation
    • If too difficult: wear pants/socks that are more slippery and do these on a more slick surface (ie, a hardwood floor instead of a rug) so you can more easily slide your body up towards your arms.
    • If too easy: do the opposite of the above to generate more friction between your body and the floor.
  • One-armed rows  – use a weight you create for resistance.
    • You can adjust the weight of the implement to make the exercise easier or more difficult.
  • Biceps variant – choose any of the variations shown previously that you are able to do in the home.
    • If you choose  to use a weight for curls you can adjust the weight as needed.
  • Face pulls and Y raises – you will want to lie over a couch or bed for each of these
    • These do not require much weight to be effective. Adjust the weight of the implement(s) to make this easier or more difficult.
  • V-ups and lying weighted leg twists – you can substitute other abdominal exercises from Lesson 12 if desired.
    • Choose any core flexion and rotational exercise or variation that is an appropriate level of difficulty.
    • You do not actually need to do AMRAP; you can instead stop 1-2 reps shy of failure. Alternatively, you can pick a rep range and do a harder variation (or add more resistance) when you are beyond the top portion of the rep range.
    • Many will use a rep range of 10-20 or so for core work.

Summary of the resistance training component

  • The above program includes 10-12 compound sets for the major muscle groups each week split over a 3x/week frequency. There are 1-4 additional isolation exercise sets for each major muscle group each week. The exercises can be done in circuits to save time and to keep the heart rate elevated. With circuits I would do one set each of a glutes/thighs exercise, a chest/shoulders/triceps exercise, and a back/biceps exercise prior to repeating.
  • Remember, the above listed sets and reps are suggestions. As discussed in Lesson 5 anywhere from 6-30 reps per set can be potentially equally effective for hypertrophy and general strength. Thus, if it is difficult to generate enough resistance for lower rep sets feel free to push sets into higher rep ranges.
  • Importantly, you can substitute different exercises for the above based on what has been discussed previously. For example, step-ups could be done instead of Bulgarian split squats. There are many possibilities; as long any substitutions work similar muscle groups your new program should still be effective.

Aerobic training component:

  • In the home without equipment you can still do lots of simple exercises such as jumping jacks, mountain climbers, burpees (easier or harder versions), etc. You can also go outside and walk/jog/run. If repetitive joint impacts are a concern then consider shadow boxing and sticking to body weight movements where this is not a problem. Additionally, consider purchasing and riding a bicycle instead of jogging or running.
    • A website with several workout videos you can follow or watch to get ideas of different options is fitnessblender.com; this link takes you specifically to the workout videos for cardiovascular fitness without equipment. You can click on “FILTERS” to change the settings to see other videos.
  • Resistance exercises themselves may put you in the moderate intensity aerobic activity category if you move quickly between sets.* If the workout takes ≥30 minutes, then that will provide at least 90 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity weekly. If the workout takes 50 minutes then this alone could help you meet the 150 minute minimum per the guidelines.
    • *This is based on this table, which lists resistance training as at least 3.0 METs.
  • However, as discussed previously, performing more cardiovascular activity on top of this provides extra health benefits. Additionally, cardiovascular activity prioritizes different energy systems than resistance training. Thus, you can incorporate 10 minutes of HIIT or faster-paced cardiovascular training on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular training on Tuesday and Thursday.
  • Alternatively, if the resistance training wears you out you can skip cardiovascular training on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; in this case you likely pushed the pace fast enough with the resistance training to tax your cardiovascular system well. You can just incorporate specific cardiovascular training on Tuesday and Thursday.

Full body routine in the home with purchasing extra equipment

With a few small purchases many more exercise options become available. You can consider purchasing:

  • a set of resistance bands (click here for an example) and a door anchor (click here for an example)
    • It is worth spending a bit extra on high quality bands with good reviews since they should have longer durability. Make sure to periodically inspect the bands for fraying or cuts so you can replace them prior to them breaking. That said, higher quality bands used correctly should last well over 1 year without issues.
  • a doorway pull-up bar (click here for an example); you can place this on the floor to use as handles for push-ups
  • bags of soil or sand to use as weight (or to pour into garbage bags to use as weight)

Without rehashing all of the above exercises that can be done at home, there are several additional exercises we can perform with this additional equipment (some of these were discussed or shown in the prior lessons discussing exercise technique).

Chest/shoulders/triceps:

  • You can wrap a resistance band around your back or shoulders when doing push-ups or dips.
  • Standing shoulder presses with one arm are feasible if you stand on one end of the resistance band.
  • Various shoulder raises with one arm are possible if you stand on one end of the resistance band.
  • Band pull aparts, where you grab the ends of the band with your hands and pull them apart, will work your rear shoulders. If you do this with the middle of the band wrapped around an anchor of some sort you can simulate face pulls.
  • You can perform chest flyes with one arm at a time.
  • Overhead tricep extensions (when standing on the band) or a tricep push down movement (by wrapping the band around a higher anchor) are options.

You can watch the video linked in the prior section for the chest/shoulders/triceps for additional ideas.

Back/biceps:

  • With the doorway pull-up bar obviously pull-ups become available. You can put your feet on a chair while doing them for assistance if needed.
  • With bands you can wrap them around an anchor and do one-armed rows. We can also kneel on the floor, bend forward, grab the band that is attached to an anchor, and simulate doing a pulldown movement.
  • Bicep curls are an option; stand on one end of the band and wrap the other end around your hand.
  • If you stand on the middle of a band you can hold the ends and perform shrugs.
  • You can do straight armed pulldowns if you anchor a band to an elevated point.

You can watch the video linked in the prior section for the back/biceps for additional ideas.

Glutes/thighs:

  • By wrapping a band around a door anchor and also around your ankle you can perform standing leg curls. Seated leg curls may be better (shown in this video) as the hip flexion component stretches the hamstring (recall the discussion of “active insufficiency” previously). You can similarly perform standing or seated leg extensions (with one leg at a time). Standing with the hip extended will decrease active insufficiency of the rectus femoris.
  • You can perform adduction and abduction movements with an anchored band that is looped around an ankle.
  • Standing on a band and looping it around your traps & the base of your neck allows you to perform a banded good morning to target the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings.
  • Deadlifts are feasible if you lay the band on the floor, stand on the middle portion, and grab the ends. Then simply stand up straight to perform the deadlift.

You can watch the video linked in the prior section for the glutes/thighs for additional ideas.

Abdominals/forearms/hands/lower legs:

  • With the band wrapped around an anchor you can perform standing band twists to work the obliques.
  • With the doorway pull-up bar you can perform hanging leg raises.
  • Various wrist curls and wrist rotational movements can be done with a band.

With several additional exercise options available to us, we can perform a full body routine with greater variety.

Example program:

  • The following image shows an example program. Underneath this image I include relevant points about each exercise that was not already discussed above.
  • This consists of three separate full body workouts. Monday and Friday include compound exercises while Wednesday only includes isolation exercises. As shown in the prior program separating them is not necessary; I am just showing a program like this for variety.
  • Importantly, the set and rep ranges are just suggestions. I will discuss progression schemes later in this lesson and then you can make any desired adjustments.

an example program that can be done in the home with resistance bands and a pull-up bar

Resistance training component (I’m only commenting on the exercises not discussed with the prior program above):

  • Good mornings with bands
    • Alter the resistance by changing the band you are using. You can use multiple bands at once as well.
    • To increase the resistance with a specific band, you can allow more slack in the portion of the band on the ground between your feet. You can alternatively wrap the band around each individual foot 1 or more times to increase the resistance as well.
  • Deadlifts with bands – picture these as a trap bar deadlift.
    • You can wrap the band ends around your wrists 1 or more times to increase the resistance. You can use multiple bands if desired.
  • Chest fly with bands – this works best when done with one arm at a time. Anchor the band at the level of your chest to your side. Then perform the fly while keeping your trunk facing perpendicular to the band so it pulls against your arm through the full range of motion.
    • Increase the resistance by stepping further from the anchor point or by grabbing the band closer to the anchor point.
  • Shoulder press with bands
    • In general if the resistance is too light you can wrap the band around your hand additional times, change to a heavier band, or incorporate multiple bands.
    • If the lightest band is too much resistance with this movement you can perform it while seated with the band under your foot or the leg of the chair or while kneeling with the band under your knee. Then if the resistance is too light while sitting or kneeling you can follow the above advice for how to make it more difficult from this position (ie, wrap it more times around your hand).
  • Pull-ups
    • Place your feet on a chair or loop a band around the bar and stand on the band to make this easier. Be careful if you use this latter technique as horizontal force from the band may pull the bar off the door frame.
    • You can wear a backpack with weight to make this harder.
  • Rows with bands
    • You can do these with the bands wrapped around your feet (shown previously in the exercise section on rows). Make sure to wrap it fully around your feet so the band does not slip off of them.
    • You can alternatively anchor the band and do a standing row. If you do this you may need to use only one arm at a time and to use the other arm to brace yourself against something heavy (ie, a couch) so that the resistance of the band does not pull your entire body towards the anchor point.
  • Chin-ups
    • You can alter the difficulty similarly to the pull-ups described above.
  • Hanging leg raises
    • Be careful to do these slowly and without too much momentum. This aids technique and helps ensure you do not accidentally pull the pull-up bar off of the door frame.
  • Standing band twists – anchor the band to your side at the level of your chest and grab it with both hands. Set a broad base with your feet wide apart and then rotate at your waist and/or your hips.
    • You can alter the resistance by grabbing the band closer to the anchor point or wrapping it around your hands/wrists.

This routine has a similar amount of overall training volume as the first routine but there are additional exercises incorporated. Several exercises can be substituted for other options if desired. You can choose variants that do or do not incorporate bands. These exercises can also be done in a circuit similar to the prior exercise program.

Aerobic training component:

This is similar to the prior full body program; the advice given there applies here as well.

Tip: As seen in the prior 3 images there are different types of resistance bands available to purchase. It is important to think carefully about how you plan to use resistance bands prior to purchasing a set. The longer bands that are one large loop are generally the most versatile and quite durable if well made; this is what I recommend going with if you intend to only purchase one set.


Summary of home-based exercise programs

The above two examples show effective ways you can perform workouts in your own home. I included many different exercises to allow greater variety. You can modify the programs as you see fit; it is perfectly acceptable to substitute different exercises, different rep ranges, and to even eliminate some exercises or sets altogether if they prove too fatiguing or time-consuming. Remember the prior guidelines discussed in Lesson 5; if your workout program meets these guidelines then you can feel confident your program will be effective. As time goes on you can make modifications when desired.

Having said that, we did not discuss above whether sets should be taken to failure, to a specific RPE or RIR, or any other method to adjust the specific reps, sets, or progression from one workout to the next. I will go over various options for this in the next section. Following that I will discuss how to apply these options to a home-based exercise program.


Progression schemes and alternative sets & reps considerations

The above workout plans have suggested set and rep schemes, but these are not mandatory. There are many ways to alter these for different purposes. Additionally, after doing a workout you need to decide what to change for the next session. Remember, we previously talked about “progressive overload”, the concept that as we engage in a well-designed resistance training routine our body will adapt to this stress and we will need to increase the training stimulus in some way to continue to make progress.

I will now discuss several different methods that reps, sets, and overall workouts can be altered to help ensure continued progress over time, break up boredom, or at times serve specific purposes. You have the option of ignoring all of the following methods and just sticking to the programs above as written, taking all sets to a RIR of 0-2 and increasing the weight when you reach the top of the rep ranges. However, if you want to make your own program, add variety, or feel that there are certain aspects of the above programs you do not like, you can consider making alterations using the below approaches.

Note: Some of these options are not going to be very conducive to a home workout setting (as opposed to a commercial gym). Nonetheless, I am grouping everything together here, and if you go through this now you’ll be able to envision how this can be applied to workout programs in commercial gyms in the next lesson.

To prevent this from being a long wall of text, I’m splitting this up into sections. In each section you’ll see for whom that specific method may benefit, how to apply it, and which exercises may or may not be conducive to using it.

Tip: There is a lot of material covered in these various progression schemes. You do not need to read all of this at once, and you do not need to read any of this to continue with this course. Again, this will provide you with additional options when attempting to construct a workout program.

In the next lesson when I go over workout programs in commercial gym settings I reference some of these techniques but I give thorough explanations there for the particular programs that are written. Thus, you can refer back to these techniques for additional general descriptions to create further options if desired.

Who this is designed for:

  • This is great for beginners to resistance training.
  • This also works for individuals coming back from a layoff.
  • When more advanced lifters incorporate a new exercise this can also work well.

How to apply:

  • Add more weight each session while staying in the predetermined set and rep range.
  • Start with light weight to help get lots of practice developing good form and then continue increasing the weight until you can no longer stay within the specific rep range or until your technique breaks down.
  • When this occurs, either:
    • stay at the same weight until you make progress again (ie, more reps)
    • decrease the weight ~10% and work back up (in case you had entered a state of functional overreaching and need additional recovery)
    • change your goal rep range to provide a different training stimulus
    • change to a different progression scheme

Example:

Let’s say we want to perform 3 sets in the 8-12 rep range. As the goals here are to increase strength but also work on technique, all sets should be taken to a RIR ≥3 initially. If we perform 10 reps with 50 pounds and this yields an RIR ≥3, we will notate this as “50*10 @ ≥3”.

  • First workout:
    • 50*12 @ ≥3, 50*12 @ ≥3, 50*12 @ ≥3
  • Second workout:
    • 55*12 @ ≥3, 55*12 @ ≥3, 55*12 @ ≥3
    • Here we did the same set and rep scheme but went up 5 pounds. We will continue to do this for the next several sessions.
  • Fifth workout:
    • 70*12 @ ≥3, 70*12 @ ≥3, 70*12 @ ≥3
    • We have gone up 5 pounds every workout to this point.
  • Sixth workout:
    • 75*12 @ ≥3, 75*12 @ 3, 75*12 @ 2
    • We are no longer able to go up 5 pounds each workout without the sessions becoming more difficult.
    • It makes sense to continue increasing the weight as we are still far from failure; the more intense sets will elicit further strength gains.
  • Seventh workout:
    • 80*12 @ 2, 80*10 @ 2, 80*9 @ 2
    • Here we are staying within our 8-12 rep range while keeping our RIR = 2.
    • These sets will be effective to elicit further strength gains and we are staying far enough from failure to ensure good technique as we begin to push ourselves more.
  • Eighth workout:
    • 85*11 @ 2, 85*9 @ 2, 85*8 @ 1
    • In the last set here we went to a RIR  = 1. As we want to avoid failure we will keep the weight the same for the next session. Some would argue at this point we are no longer following linear progression since we are allowing the RIR to dictate what we do, but this is more of an argument of semantics; if we make progress next session by performing more reps (or the same number of reps but it is easier), than we are still making progress.
  • Ninth workout:
    • 85*12 @ 2, 85*10 @ 2, 85*8 @ 2
    • As the RIR of all sets was 2 we can increase the weight again.
  • Tenth workout:
    • 90*11 @ 2, 90*9 @ 2, 90*8 @ 1
    • Similar to above we will keep the weight the same. After a few more sessions making slow progress like this we then get to our 13th session.
  • Thirteenth workout:
    • 100*9 @ 2, 100*8 @ 2, 100*8 @ 0
    • Now we have actually taken a set to failure and it is time to consider changing something.

Options for the next workout include:

  • Keep the weight the same. We can continue doing this until there are two workouts in a row where we are not able to increase the reps we perform.
  • Decrease the weight 10% and work back up. This is a good option if we feel somewhat fatigued, particularly during the warm-up sets. This may indicate we will benefit from taking it a bit easy for a session or two. However, if we are not feeling fatigued this is less likely to prove helpful.
  • Decrease the goal rep range to 6-8. We can do this after employing the first option where the rep count stagnates. We can employ this with the second option as well if we are feeling fatigued. Or we can move directly into this option. Later when we stagnate again we can decrease the rep range to 3-5 (and increase to 5 sets instead of 3 to help make up for the loss of volume when decreasing the rep range this low).
  • An additional option is to rotate out this exercise with a different one or to completely change the progression scheme to a different option listed here.

Exercise selection:

  • It makes more sense to start with very light weight with exercises that are more technically challenging (ie, free weight compound exercises) rather than isolation lifts or machine lifts where there is little margin for error; for the latter exercises you can start at slightly more challenging weight without it significantly impacting your ability to develop good technique.
  • Complete beginners will gain strength rapidly on all lifts and thus this is a good approach for all exercises if an incremental load adjustment is possible. For some exercises, such as lateral raises, it may not be possible to increase the weight in small enough increments for this approach to work well.

Who this is designed for:

  • This can be done for individuals of any training level.
  • This is particularly well suited for individuals who have limited access to weights/resistance and thus will have difficulty adding resistance in small increments.

How to apply:

  • Take sets to a specific RPE or RIR. Listen to your body and do as many reps as needed to hit your goal RPE or RIR.
  • As you get stronger you will need to perform more reps to hit this goal.
  • As sets up to 30 reps can be effective, you can continue this until you can perform 30 reps a set and then increase the resistance.
  • At times you should take exercises to failure to allow yourself to anchor your RPE and RIR estimates appropriately. If you only ever go to a RIR = 2 you may actually be at an RIR ≥3 without realizing. Taking sets to failure occasionally and remembering how sets feel at RIR = 0, 1, 2, and 3 will help your accuracy in estimating your RPE and RIR.

Example:

Let’s say we want to perform 3 sets of lateral raises to a RIR = 1-2. If we perform 10 reps with 5 pounds and this yields an RIR = 2, we will notate this as “5*10 @ 2”.

  • First workout:
    • 5*12 @ 2, 5*12 @ 1, 5*11 @1
    • We can choose whether to take sets to a RIR = 1 or 2. People typically will take the final sets closer to failure than the initial sets so we stopped at a RIR = 2 on the first set and a RIR = 1 on the latter two sets.
  • Second workout:
    • 5*13 @ 2, 5*12 @ 2, 5*12 @ 1
    • We have gotten a little stronger and can do an extra rep on these sets. We will continue to slowly make progress like this over many further sessions.
  • Tenth workout:
    • 5*20 @ 2, 5*18 @ 2, 5*17 @ 1
    • Now that we can do 20 reps with 5 pounds we should be able to do several reps with 10 pounds.
  • Eleventh workout:
    • 10*7 @ 2, 10*6 @ 2, 10*6  @ 1
    • Now we can continue to make progress as we did previously.

Exercise selection:

  • This works well for exercises where you use small amounts of weight as it will be difficult to add additional weight readily. This is evident in the example above using lateral raises where it takes many sessions using 5 pound dumbbells before we are strong enough to use 10 pound dumbbells.
  • This also works well for home-based exercises where you cannot increase the resistance for many exercises in an incremental fashion.

Who this is designed for:

  • This can be done for individuals of any training level.

How to apply:

  • Pick a specific rep range and RPE/RIR goal for your sets.
  • Do as many reps as necessary to reach the RPE/RIR goal.
  • If you do fewer or greater reps than the specified rep range then decrease or increase the weight, respectively.
  • As explained in the “RPE/RIR approach” above, at times you should take exercises to failure to allow yourself to anchor your RPE and RIR estimates appropriately.

Example:

Let’s say we want to perform 3 sets in the 8-12 rep range to a RIR = 2 or 3. If we perform 10 reps with 100 pounds and this yields a RIR = 2, we will notate this as “100*10 @ 2”.

  • First workout:
    • 100*11 @ 2, 100*9 @ 3, 90*10 @ 2
    • We have not reached the upper limit of our rep and RIR range in the first set so we will keep the weight the same for the next workout.
  • Second workout:
    • 100*12 @ 2, 100*10 @ 2, 100*9 @ 2
    • We have reached the top of our rep range but not our RIR range so we will keep the weight the same.
  • Third workout:
    • 100*12 @ 3, 100*11 @ 2, 100*12 @ 0
    • We have reached the top of our rep and RIR range so we will increase the weight.
    • Here we took the final set to failure to help ensure we are accurately assigning RIR values.
  • Fourth workout:
    • 105*11 @ 2, 105*9 @ 3, 100*11 @ 2
    • We will keep the weight the same until we reach the top of our rep and RIR range.
  • Fifth workout:
    • 105*12 @ 3, 105*9 @ 3, 105*8 @ 2
    • Now we can increase the weight again.
  • Sixth workout:
    • 110*10 @ 3, 110*9 @ 2, 105*10 @ 0
    • We have again taken the final set to failure to help ensure we are accurately assigning RIR values.

Importantly, we stay within our desired rep rage of 8-12 in every set and we take each set to a RIR = 2 or 3. Therefore, we adjust the weight as needed to remain within these parameters. There is some flexibility here. For example, options include performing 105*8 @ 2 or 95*[email protected] for a given set since both are within the desired ranges. What exactly you choose to perform to stay within the prescribed ranges is up to personal preference.

Exercise selection:

  • This works well for exercises where you can add weight in increments without having to decrease the rep count significantly.
  • For example, if your goal range is 8-12 reps and you squat 50 pounds for 12 reps and are at your goal RIR = 2 you will likely be able to squat 55 pounds for at least 8 reps.

Who this is designed for:

  • This can be done for individuals of any training level, though it will be more difficult for beginners who have no frame of reference for estimating RPE or RIR.
  • For individuals who are not confident in their ability to estimate RPE/RIR this approach allows lots of practice to improve.

How to apply:

  • In the first workout aim to take all sets to a RIR = 3 (equivalent to a RPE =  7 if using RIR-based RPE).
  • In the next workout keep the weight the same but take all sets to a RIR = 2. At least on the first set you should be able to perform more reps due to strength gained from the prior workout and because you are purposefully going closer to failure.
  • In the next workout keep the same weight but take all sets to a RIR = 1. For the same reasons listed above you should be able to perform more reps on the first set. As you are going close to failure you will develop more fatigue on the first set so you may not perform as many reps on subsequent sets as you did in prior sessions.
  • If you have any doubt about your ability to accurately assess RPE or RIR, in the next session take at least the first set to RIR = 0. You can take subsequent sets to a RIR = 1 or 0 as you see fit.
  • Finally, in the subsequent workout go back to taking sets to a RIR = 3 but increase the weight.
  • When initially starting this approach it may be best to pick a weight where  you can perform 6-10 reps in the first set to a RIR = 3. By the last sessions you will possibly be performing 10-15 reps per set.
Example:
 
I am not including a specific example as this is illustrated well in the “How to apply” section above.
 

Exercise selection:

  • This approach is viable for any exercise. It makes more sense to do this with compound exercises when you are fresh as you may already be fatigued going into isolation exercises; this would make it more difficult to track progress and for beginners may make it more difficult to accurately gauge RPE or RIR on each set.
  • If you choose to take the final session to RIR = 0 then be careful if you use an exercise where it can be more dangerous to fail (ie, squats).

Who this is designed for:

  • This is particularly well-suited for individuals who aren’t confident in their ability to estimate RPE or RIR.
    • By taking the last set very close to failure or all the way to failure you will gain regular experience with how this feels.
    • You can then translate this experience to non-failure sets to better assess RPE and RIR for each set.
    • You will also learn through trial and error how the RIR of a specific set fatigues you for a subsequent set.
  • This is also a good approach for people who tend to train too close to failure and have difficulty holding themselves back as doing so will likely decrease the number of reps that can be done on subsequent sets significantly.

How to apply:

  • Aim for a specific number of total reps between all of the sets for a specific exercise.
  • If you attain this many reps you can increase the weight in the next session.
  • In general if you push to failure prior to the last set the number of reps you do on subsequent sets will suffer significantly; thus if you wish to take a set to failure it should be the last set.

Example:

Let’s say we set a goal of 30 reps to be completed in 3 sets. For this rep goal approach we will use the same weight in each set, in this case 100 lbs. If we perform 10 reps with 100 pounds and this yields an RIR = 2, we will notate this as “100*10 @ 2”.

  • First workout:
    • 100*10 @ 2, 100*9 @ 2, 100*10 @0
    • By the third set we are fatigued so we manage the same number of reps as the first set but the RIR has gone down to 0.
    • We completed 29 total reps so we will keep the weight the same for the next session.
  • Second workout:
    • 100*11 @ 2, 100* 10 @ 2, 100 * 11 @ 0
    • We completed 32 total reps so we will increase the weight for the next session.
  • Third workout:
    • 105*10 @ 2, 105*8 @ 2, 105*9 @ 0
    • this is 27 total reps so we will keep the weight the same for the next session.
  • Fourth workout:
    • 105*11 @ 2, 105*9 @ 2, 105*9 @0
    • This is 29 total reps so we will keep the weight the same for the next session.
  • Fifth workout:
    • 105*12 @ 2, 105*10 @ 2, 105*9 @ 0
    • This is 31 total reps so we will increase the weight for the next session.

Again, other than the final set you should avoid failure. In the first workout above if we did 100*12 @ 0 in the first set, then the second set we may have done 100*9 @ RIR = 0, and the third set we may have done 100*7 @ RIR = 0. Thus our total reps will likely be fewer than what would be possible if we save going to failure for the last set. Furthermore, the increased fatigue from going to failure on all 3 sets may hinder recovery for the next session.

Exercise selection:

    • This approach can be applied to any exercise.
    • If you choose an exercise where going to failure can be dangerous (ie, squats) you may want to take the final set to a RIR = 1 and only go to a RIR = 0 sparingly. Most people tend to not use this approach on the primary large free weight compound exercises (ie, the squat, bench press, or deadlift) due to the significant fatigue that can build up from going very close to failure on these sets on a regular basis.
    • This approach makes more sense with supplemental compound exercises done early in a workout; if you use it with isolation exercises later in a workout your level of fatigue may vary based on what you have already done in your workout session and this can impact the total number of reps you can perform.

Who this is designed for:

  • Anyone who wants to increase maximal strength can incorporate this approach.
  • While you can get stronger without this approach, this will aid neuromuscular development and train the body to better handle heavier loads.

How to apply:

  • For any given exercise include a heavier set of 1-5 reps and then keep the subsequent sets in the ≥6 rep range.
    • Of note there are other strategies to incorporate back-off sets as well.(Rodriguez, 2021) It’s not clear how best to apply this strategy in general but it is commonly used in different manifestations.
  • It is important to build up gradually to heavier weight in the top set over many sessions when doing this approach for the first time.
  • You can do this every workout or once every 1-2 weeks to help track changes in maximal strength over time.

Example:

Let’s say we want to perform 3 sets for a given exercise. We’ll work up to heavier weight for the top set and then use the subsequent two sets as “back off” sets in the 8-12 rep range. We’ll initially set take the RIR of each set to 2 and then work towards a RIR = 1 for the heavier set. If we perform 10 reps with 100 pounds and this yields an RIR = 2, we will notate this as “100*10 @ 2”.

  • First workout:
    • 100*12 @ 2, 100*11 @ 2, 100*10 @ 2
  • Second workout:
    • 110*9 @ 2, 100*12 @ 2, 100*10 @ 2
  • Third workout:
    • 120*7 @ 2, 105*11 @ 2, 105*9 @ 2
  • Fourth workout:
    • 130*5 @ 2, 105*12 @ 2, 105*10 @ 2
    • Now that we can only perform 5 reps with an RIR = 2 we will go up 5 pounds each workout.
  • Fifth workout:
    • 135*5 @ 1-2, 110*11 @ 2, 110*9 @ 2
    • Here’s it’s unclear if we could have performed 1 or 2 additional reps.
  • Sixth workout:
    • 140*5 @ 1, 110*12 @ 2, 110*10 @ 2
  • Seventh workout:
    • 145*4 @ 1, 115*10 @ 2, 115*8 @ 2
  • Eighth workout:
    • 150*4 @ 1, 115*11 @ 2, 115*9 @ 2
  • Ninth workout:
    • 155*3 @ 1, 115*12 @ 2, 115*10 @ 2

At this point we have now reached a top set of 155 pounds for 3 reps to a RIR = 1. If we want to avoid failure then we should not increase the weight next session. Rather, it makes more sense to keep the weight the same and continue performing sets of 3 until we acquire enough strength to perform a set of 4 to a RIR = 1. We can then add 5 pounds or we can keep the weight the same until we get up to performing 5 reps with a RIR = 1 and then increase the weight at this point.

Exercise selection:

  • This can be done with any exercise but is particularly well suited for compound exercises.
  • Going heavy on the isolation exercises doesn’t really train the body overall to produce greater maximal strength. It is really the compound exercises where you have to learn to stay tight, brace hard, and push yourself to use weight that feels progressively heavier. Thus, it makes less sense to take this approach with isolation exercises.
  • Additionally, if you do isolation exercises after compound exercises you will have some level of fatigue and thus attempting to isolate and track pure strength changes is difficult.

Who this is designed for:

  • Anyone can use this technique, though it makes more sense for intermediate and advanced lifters as beginners can make good progress with relatively little training volume.
  • If you intend to perform circuit training this is not a good option as this requires you to complete one exercise from start to finish before proceeding with your workout.
  • If you are short on time any given day this is a good option if you choose to perform a small handful of exercises in that session.

How to apply:

  • There are multiple different ways to apply this method.
  • Option 1:
    • Set a specific time limit for an exercise (ie, 5 minutes). Set a goal number of reps.
    • Perform as many reps as possible at a set resistance level within that time limit.
    • If you complete the goal number of reps, then for the next session either:
      • increase the goal number of reps
      • increase the resistance for the next session
      • decrease the total time limit (effectively decreasing the rest periods between sets)
    • In general you will want to perform sets to a RIR = ~2-3 within this time frame; this balances performing sufficient reps each set to get closer to your goal without going close enough to failure that you hinder the number of reps you can perform on subsequent sets.
  • Option 2:
    • Set a specific time limit for an exercise and a specific number of reps per set. Set a goal number of sets.
    • Perform as many sets as possible with the predetermined number of reps in the time limit.
    • If you complete your goal number of sets, then for the next session either:
      • increase the resistance
      • increase the reps per set
      • decrease the time limit (effectively shortening the rest period between sets)
    • In general the early sets will be to a high RIR and the later sets will be closer to failure as you accumulate more fatigue.
  • You can alternatively perform some permutation of the above options and variables.

Example:

Let’s say we want to perform density training for lat pulldowns. We will set a 5 minute time period with a goal of performing 50 reps with 70 pounds, similar to option 1 above. If we perform 10 reps of 70 pounds to a RIR = 3 we will notate this as “70*10 @ 3”. I am listing the time that each set takes but you do not need to record this; simply start a timer at the beginning and then see how many reps you have done when time is up.

  • Set 1:
    • 70*12 @ 3 – this set takes 22 seconds
    • Rest 30 seconds.
  • Set 2:
    • 70*10 @ 3 – this set takes 18 seconds
    • Rest 30 seconds.
  • Set 3:
    • 70*8 @ 3 – this set takes 15 seconds
    • Rest 30 seconds.
  • Set 4:
    • 70*6 @ 3 – this set takes 12 seconds
    • Rest 30 seconds.
  • Set 5:
    • 70*5 @ 3 – this set takes 10 seconds
    • Rest 30 seconds.
  • Set 6:
    • 70*4 @ 3 – this set takes 8 seconds
    • Rest 40 seconds.
  • Set 7:
    • 70*6 @ 0 – this set takes 12 seconds

In this example we performed 51 reps in 4 minutes and 47 seconds. Next workout we can increase the weight, increase the rep goal, or decrease the rest period between sets.

Exercise selection:

  • Large compound exercises with free weights may or may not be a good choice for this.
    • If you use relatively heavy weights such that you are not performing many reps this can be a good strategy.
    • On the other hand, if you use lighter weight and do lots of reps you may find yourself becoming cardiovascularly winded.
      • This can be ok if you can maintain good form and want to work on improving your conditioning.
      • On the other hand, if this leads to form breakdown, or if you realize that being winded rather than a lack of muscular strength is preventing you from completing additional reps, this may not be a great option.
  • For the above reasons this may be better suited for exercises like push-ups, pull-ups and machine variations where balance is less important and there is less risk of form breakdown.

Who this is designed for:

  • This is not going to be very helpful for beginners as the progression scheme is slower than necessary.
  • On the other hand, for more advanced individuals or people who are having trouble finding ways to add weight or reps to sets on a fairly consistent basis, this is a good strategy to increase overall volume and may help break through a plateau.
  • This works better for people who are doing a split routine of some sort as it can be hard to get up to using a high volume of sets with full body routines due to time constraints within a single workout.

How to apply:

  • Start a program with relatively few sets per muscle group per week (ie, 6-10).
  • Every 1-2 sessions or weeks add an additional 1-2 sets per muscle group.
  • When the volume rises to the point that workouts take too long or you feel your ability to recover is negatively impacted, reset to a lower volume and increase the weight.
    • If you get to the point where you feel recovery has been negatively impacted you may be in a state of functional overreaching; at this point decreasing the volume serves as a deload and when you fully recover you may develop significant strength benefits.

Example:

I am not going to include a specific example as this is fairly self-explanatory. Just keep in mind that if at any point you can effectively increase the weight or reps for the first set without the RPE or RIR changing relative to your last session, that means you are doing sufficient volume to stimulate further progress. In this situation you do not need to further increase the volume as the current amount of volume you are performing is sufficient. If you reach a plateau where you do not make further progress for a couple of sessions in a row then you can further increase the volume (or reset the volume to a lower level if you feel you are accumulating too much fatigue and hindering recovery).

Exercise selection:

  • This can theoretically be done with any exercise and any workout scheme.
  • In general it makes more sense to track overall volume by muscle group rather than by exercise. For example, if you want to do this for the back & biceps, and you are doing both pull-ups and seated rows, you can add sets to both exercises at different points and count it as additional volume for the back and the biceps.

Who this is designed for:

  • This is a reasonable strategy for non-beginners. Beginners will able to progress more quickly than this progression scheme allows.
  • This is a good strategy if you have reached a plateau where it is difficult to add reps or weight to a specific exercise. Increasing training volume can prove very helpful in this situation.
  • This works better for people who are doing a split routine of some sort as it can be hard to get up to using a high volume of sets with full body routines due to time constraints within a single workout.

How to apply:

  • Start with a low number of sets per exercise (ie, 2 or 3).
  • Option 1: each session increase the number of sets by 1 while keeping the weight and rep count the same.
    • After you get up to 4 or 5 sets, reset the volume to 2 or 3 sets and increase the weight.
    • While aiming for the same number of reps each set the RPE of each set is expected to increase and the RIR should gradually decrease.
      • If these do not change that means that the weight is too low or your goal reps is too low as the sets are not challenging enough for you.
      • If these change significantly (ie, set 1 your RIR = 4 and set 2 your RIR = 1) then you may need to rest more between sets.
  • Option 2: each session increase the number of sets by 1 and keep the rep count the same while adjusting the weight so the RPE or RIR remains the same.
    • After you get up to 4 or 5 sets, reset the volume to 2 or 3 sets and increase the weight for the first set.
    • This takes some guesswork as you’ll have to assume how much to adjust the weight each set to stay at a similar RPE/RIR with the same rep count.
    • On the other hand, this is a good strategy to help you learn how much a preceding set will fatigue you for a subsequent set.

Example:

I am not going to include a specific example as this is fairly self-explanatory. However, you may find two different things occur with this method:

  1. Similar to the “Volume ramping” approach above, if at any point you can effectively increase the weight or reps for the first set without the RPE or RIR changing relative to your last session, that means you are doing sufficient volume to stimulate further progress. You can still follow the progression as detailed here, but you may want to consider if previously you were doing insufficient volume. If so, then you can continue the current higher level of training volume until you reach another plateau and then alter your approach.
  2. When you reach the highest level of volume you may induce a significant amount of fatigue. It is possible you will enter a state of functional overreaching. When you reset to a lower volume and increase the weight you will induce less fatigue and undergo greater recovery. Thus, the first workout with lower volume and heavier weight may not indicate significant progress but the subsequent workout might after you have recovered well.

Exercise selection:

  • This strategy is viable for any exercise.
  • It makes more sense to do this with compound exercises than with isolation exercises as generally people are willing to spend more time on the larger compound exercises and would prefer not to add several sets to isolation exercises.
  • If you do this for multiple compound exercises in the same session that work the same muscle groups, consider if the increased fatigue from increasing the sets with the first exercise will hinder your ability to productively increase the sets with the second exercise.
    • This will be evident if your strength significantly drops off from one set to the next even with sufficient rest time between sets.
    • If this occurs you may want to keep the volume for the second exercise lower while using this approach for the first exercise.

Who this is designed for:

  • This is better suited for non-beginners as the inherent variability of these schemes adds more complexity than is necessary in the beginner stages.
    • If a beginner is working to establish consistency with assigning a specific RPE or RIR value to a given set, it is helpful to perform multiple similar sets (with similar numbers of reps) over successive workouts to better train themselves with using RPE/RIR. The extra variability with periodization makes this more difficult.
    • Most beginners will be able to engage in linear progression, which is simpler if you perform a similar number of sets and reps each workout and simply add weight as the primary changing variable.
  • Depending on how you set up a periodization scheme it may be weeks between sessions where you do the same number of sets and reps; if so it may be challenging to be confident you are making progress on a daily or weekly time frame. If you feel you need more rapid feedback regarding how things are going then periodization strategies designed over longer time frames may not be a great option.

How to apply:

  • Linear periodization:
    • In general start with fewer sets and higher rep ranges (ie, 3*12-15).
    • Then, each session, each week, or every 2 weeks, decrease the rep range and gradually increase the set count (ie, 3*12-15, 3*10-12, 4*8-10, 4*6-8).
    • Then start over with fewer sets and higher reps.
    • Alternatively, you can choose to keep the set count the same for all workouts and just vary the rep range.
  • Reverse linear periodization:
    • This is the opposite of linear periodization.
    • The research overall finds this to be potentially inferior to linear periodization, in general I would favor a linear periodization approach over a reverse linear periodization approach.
  • Block periodization:
    • As discussed previously this generally refers to altering program structure over longer time periods to train different fitness attributes. Thus, this does not refer to one specific program. Rather, it refers to several successive programs designed to train different aspects of one’s fitness.
  • Undulating periodization:
    • You can set this up in many different ways by altering the set and rep count in consecutive training sessions.
    • When first doing this it will likely be beneficial to repeat sessions at least every 2 weeks so you can ensure you are making progress. For example, if you do squats on Monday and leg press on Thursday, then you can do:
      • week 1:
        • Monday: squats 3*10-12
        • Thursday: leg press 3*12-15
      • week 2:
        • Monday: squats 3*6-8
        • Thursday: leg press 3*8-10
      • week 3:
        • repeat week 1
    • This way you  will be assured you are making progress if you can increase the weight on week 3 while performing the same number of reps with each set taken to the same RPE/RIR as week 1.
    • You can alter this basic structure in many different ways, but try to ensure you build in some method to objectively track progress over time. If you do different set & rep ranges every workout for 1 month it may be difficult to know if this is actually benefiting you.

Example:

I have included this table previously and am placing it here again to illustrate each of these better.

Of note, periodization can be combined with other progression approaches discussed in this section. For example, the “Linear progression” approach essentially incorporates linear periodization if you decrease the rep range when you reach a plateau. You can easily incorporate variable rep ranges with the other approaches as well.

Exercise selection:

  • In theory periodization can be used with any exercise but in general it is more frequently used with compound exercises.
  • You can use this with isolation exercises, but as these movements are generally done with moderate or higher rep ranges there is less utility in incorporating lower rep ranges with a periodization approach.

Who this is designed for:

  • This is not ideal for individuals looking to maximize strength as we previously discussed that rest periods of at least 120 seconds (and possibly longer for heavier free weight compound exercises) are beneficial for maximum strength gains.
  • This is a good strategy for people looking to improve overall conditioning and work capacity, as well as for people looking to shorten the time of their overall workouts.
  • If you intend to perform exercises in circuits this method is not feasible since you are not doing two sets in a row of the same exercise.

How to apply:

  • Pick a certain length of time to rest between sets, such as 120 seconds.
  • Decrease the rest period between sets in successive workouts. For example, go from 120 seconds to 105 seconds, then 90, then 75, then 60 seconds.
    • You may find different exercises lend themselves to more effectively be trained with different rest periods. In general longer rest periods will be needed for exercises using larger amounts of total muscle.
  • Then start over with the longer rest period but use more weight or aim for more reps.
  • Alternatively, when you are using shorter rest periods you can keep them short if you want your workouts to be shorter. In this situation the gradual decrease in rest times proves helpful for improving overall conditioning to allow you to perform quicker workouts.

Example:

I am not including a specific example as this is illustrated well in the “How to apply” section above.

Exercise selection:

  • This works well for exercises where you are attempting to improve your ability to do many reps at once. For example, this is a fairly common strategy for improving at push-ups and pull-ups.
  • This is likely not a good strategy for the heavier free weight compound movements as decreasing rest times will lead to your cardiovascular system becoming more taxed, and when you are short of breath it is harder to maintain good technique with these exercises.

Who this is designed for:

  • Anybody can use this strategy effectively. When purposefully performing reps slowly these are frequently referred to as “tempo reps”.
  • We previously discussed a controlled eccentric phase over 1-2 seconds and a concentric phase done as quickly as possible with the weight under control is likely ideal for improving a combination of hypertrophy, strength, and power.
  • However, one can purposely slow down the eccentric or concentric phase to help monitor their technique throughout the movement, identify weaknesses, for some exercises to better work the muscles through the full range of motion, and at times to make the exercise harder when it would otherwise be difficult to increase the resistance..
    • For example, if you descend slowly in a squat you may better identify if you are maintaining weight evenly throughout your feet or if you are experiencing buttwink (posterior pelvic tilt) at the bottom of the movement. If you ascend slowly in the squat you’ll be able to more easily track your torso angle and ensure your hips do not shoot up faster than the barbell (or other weight implement) itself.
    • As another example, if you do a pull-up (which has a negative strength curve) as quickly as possible the momentum from the beginning portion of the rep may carry you up to the top portion to a degree and take some of the resistance off of your muscles as you ascend near the top. Purposefully doing the concentric phase slowly will allow you to better feel the muscles working through their full range of motion.
    • As a third example, when performing a rowing movement some people subconsciously extend their lower back at the beginning of the movement to help generate momentum; by doing the concentric phase slowly it will be easier to prevent this from happening if this is a concern.
    • Lastly, for an exercise like lateral raises where it is very difficult to increase the weight on a regular basis, one can make the repetitions harder by prolonging the concentric or eccentric phase for each rep. In this way you can effectively increase the difficulty and make continued progress while keeping the weight the same.

How to apply:

  • When performing this for technique development and weakness identification:
    • Instead of using a rep tempo such as 2/1/x/0 (which would be a 2 second eccentric phase, a 1 second pause, perform the concentric phase as fast as possible, and then immediately start the next rep), you would use a tempo such as 5/1/3/1.
    • You can do this every rep of a set or just for the first 1-2 reps.
    • If at any point you feel your form is breaking down then you should adjust your form accordingly for the remainder of the set.
      • For example, if your hips go up too quickly as you ascend in the squat then you can consciously keep your torso angle consistent at the beginning of the concentric phase with the tempo rep.
      • If you cannot correct your form with this weight but you can with a lighter weight then this means you have identified a weakness and this weight is too heavy for tempo work.
    • Over time if you are doing this to work on technique you can slowly decrease the length of the tempo reps while you are able to maintain good form.
  • When performing this to make the exercise harder:
    • In this case a shorter tempo such as 3/0/2/0 may be more appropriate.
    • With the longer eccentric phase your muscles are more actively contributing to the eccentric portion of the lift (as opposed to just lightly resisting the weight while gravity brings it downward).
    • With the longer concentric phase you are removing any aspects of momentum that would assist your muscles in the latter portion of the lift.

Example:

I am not including a specific example as this is illustrated well in the “How to apply” section.

Exercise selection:

  • This can be done with any exercise for technique development purposes as well as weakness identification.
  • If doing this to make reps harder this can still be done with any exercise but is particularly well suited for the lighter exercises that target smaller muscle groups where it is difficult to make incremental increases in resistance. This would be one way to make progress over time without using such high weight that your form has to suffer to complete the lift.

Who this is designed for:

  • This method has only recently been described, with only one research group evaluating it thus far.(Duchateau, 2021)
  • Additionally, it is not frequently used due to its novelty, so it is difficult to characterize its quality well.
  • For this reason, I cannot state confidently if anyone should use this method regularly.
  • Nonetheless, the above research group’s findings are encouraging, and due to the unique and very quick nature of protocol I do believe it would be worthwhile to consider for anyone in a time crunch.

How to apply:

  • Take 70% of your one-repetition maximum.
  • Perform a set of 3 reps, then 4 reps, then 5 reps, then 6 reps, and lastly with 7 reps, all with 15 seconds of rest between each rep.
  • The idea is that the initial reps will be very fast and aid force/power development while by the end of the protocol the last 2 sets will be close to failure due to the accumulated fatigue, thus better stimulating hypertrophy.

Example:

I am not including a specific example as this is illustrated well in the “How to apply” section.

Exercise selection:

  • In theory this can be used for any exercise.
  • Given the last 1-2 sets will be very close to or at failure, this can potentially induce a significant amount of fatigue and pose a safety risk for exercises such as squats where going to failure regularly may not be safe.
  • Additionally, for the larger compound exercises it is possible that cardiovascular conditioning may become a hindering factor by the end rather than muscular failure. If this is the case this may be a good protocol to work on conditioning but may not yield the muscular benefits that are desired.

Of note, there is not much research evaluating any of these approaches or other specialized techniqes, and it is not clear if there is any merit to using these beyond simply increasing training volume.(Schoenfeld, 2018; Angleri, 2020; Kassiano, 2021) Drop sets are used fairly commonly, rest-pause and myo-reps (explained in detail here) are used for various purposes. Most people do not use the terms “rest-pause” and “myo-reps” as they were initially intended to be used. I will explain them there and then make it clear when I think they can be useful.

Who this is designed for:

  • People of any training level can use drop sets and myo-reps though beginners will not need them.
  • Rest-pause involves going to failure repeatedly so I strongly recommend this only be used by more advanced lifters with several years of experience who can maintain proficient technique when doing this and gauge their recovery abilities well.
    • In fact, the only reason I am including this in this course is because a lot of people claim to be doing rest-pause sets when in reality they are not using the term the way it was initially intended.
  • These approaches are better-suited for individuals who are either short on time or want to devote relatively little time to certain body parts or movements.

How to apply:

  • Drop sets:
    • I introduced this idea in Lesson 4.
    • Finish a set and then immediately lower the weight and perform additional reps.
    • If you want to do this I advise lowering the weight ~20% with each drop (this is variable).
    • Typically people will perform 1 or 2 drops, essentially making 2 or 3 mini-sets in 1 full set.
  • Rest-pause reps:
    • Do not do this unless you have several years of experience.
    • Here you pick a weight that is relatively heavy (ie, a 7-10 rep max).
    • Take the set to the point of technical failure.
    • Take 10-15 deep breaths.
    • Perform an additional 2-4 reps to technical failure.
    • Take 10-15 deep breaths.
    • Perform a final 1-3 reps to technical failure.
  • Myo-reps:
    • This can be considered a variation of rest-pause reps.
    • The individual who created this technique recommends using 30% of your 1 rep max if you are a beginner, 40% if you are intermediate, and 50% if you are advanced.
    • Reps should NOT be performed with a full range of motion, rather you should utilize the middle 80% of the range of motion without locking out your limbs.
      • The purpose of this is to mimic blood flow occlusion training, which I will briefly touch on in Lesson 16. I am not discussing this in depth as it is not yet fully proven to be safe and otherwise has rather specific applications (ie, injury recovery). Thus, I am skeptical of the risk-reward ratio with blood flow occlusion training. Additionally, I am more skeptical that avoiding lockout will mimic it.
    • Perform a set until the rep speed slows significantly, typically to a RIR = 1-2, and then re-rack the weight. This is called the “activation set”.
    • Take 3-5 deep breaths. Then perform a mini-set of 3-5 reps close to failure. Then take 3-5 deep breaths and repeat another mini-set of 3-5 reps. Repeat this process until:
      • you either perform 5 min-sets with the same number of reps in each set
      • you perform a mini-set with fewer reps than the prior mini-set
      • examples:
        • 20+3+3+3+3+3 – stop here as you have done 5 mini-sets
        • 20+4+4+3 – stop here as the rep count has dropped off with the final mini-set

Example:

  • Drop sets:
    • If your 10 rep max on the machine chest press is 100 pounds:
      • Start with 100 for a set to a RIR = 1-3 (so 7-9 reps)
      • Then immediately after this perform a set with 80 pounds to a RIR = 1-2 (you may reach 2-5 reps or so depending on how close to failure the first set went)
      • Stop here or perform a final mini set of 60 pounds to a RIR = 0-2.
    • You do not need to go to failure on any mini-set but you can on the final mini-set if you can do so safely.
  • Rest-pause reps:
    • I do not recommend this for beginners or early intermediate lifters and thus I am not providing a relevant example.
  • Myo-reps:
    • Rather than determining your 1 rep max, you can simply pick a weight where you think you can perform 15-20 reps.
    • You can then follow the protocol as written above.
    • I am rather skeptical that only using 80% of the range of motion will significantly mimic blood flow occlusion training given you are supposed to unload the weight between each mini set. Thus, I think it is fine to use a full range of motion on each rep.

Exercise selection:

  • These are best suited for the isolation movements or the machine movements where it is easy to change weight quickly (for drop sets) and where increased cardiovascular fatigue is unlikely to hinder form.
  • Additionally, if developing maximum strength is a goal then using a strategy with lower rep sets is worthwhile.
    • With drop sets you can start with heavier weight and then do multiple drops.
    • With myo-reps you will start with relatively lighter weight initially and this will likely not be a good strategy to employ on a regular basis to increase maximal strength.
  • As a example, I would not use these approaches for squats as it is more difficult to remain technically proficient when you are out of breath and most people use this as a general strength-building exercise with heavier weight.
    • Having said that, if you are experienced enough that you believe you can maintain technical proficiency while doing these with squats then you can do these if desired.
  • If you start to use these I would initially avoid failure on all mini-sets. See how sore these techniques make you and how you recover from them prior to increasing the intensity by taking any of the mini-sets to failure.

The research overall on cluster sets is somewhat equivocal at this point; there is no clear advantage over traditional training strategies.(Davies, 2021; Jukic, 2021) Additionally, most methods of using these take longer than traditional training protocols. However, less fatigue and sensation of effort is developed when using these methods, and thus theoretically they may be helpful in elderly and clinical populations (ie, rehabilitation settings).(Latella, 2021)

Given the equivalent results, I will simply describe how these can be incorporated as I do not suggest directly utilizing these methods considering the increased time requirement. Nonetheless, if these options are appealing for any reason you can use them successfully.

Traditional sets:

  • A traditional protocol may include a 12 rep set followed by 120 seconds of rest and then a second 12 rep set.

Cluster sets with inter-set rest:

  • A cluster set variation of the traditional protocol above may include a 4 rep set followed by 15-45 seconds of rest, then another 4 rep set followed by 15-45 seconds of rest, and then a third 4 rep set.
  • This is followed by 120 seconds of rest.
  • Then the first cluster set is repeated.
  • In general the higher the relative load of the lift the longer you will want to rest.

Cluster sets with inter-rep rest:

  • Perform 1 rep at a time and rest 6-20 seconds between reps.
  • In general the higher the relative load of the lift the longer you will want to rest.

Equal work-to-rest ratio cluster sets:

  • Here you consider the traditional set protocol, take the total planned rest time, and divide it by (total number of reps – 1). Thus, in the above example, 120/(24-1) = 5.2
  • You then perform 1 rep at a time and rest 5.2 seconds between each rep. You can continue this to failure or stop short of failure.

Rest redistribution cluster sets:

  • Here you take the planned rest time and redistribute it amongst the reps such that the total training time does not increase. This is the only method where the time of the cluster set is not lengthened relative to the traditional sets.
  • In the above example, instead of doing 12 reps in 2 sets separated by 120 seconds, you can do 4 reps in 6 sets separated by 24 seconds. The total length of time is equivalent.

Again, at this point the evidence indicates these cluster set variations are not more effective than traditional sets. They may still be useful for people who are not able to tolerate traditional sets, and there could be specific applications for them that have not yet been found effective in studies. If you would like to experiment with these then feel free to do so, but consider incorporating traditional sets occasionally as a bench mark to ensure you are making progress. In theory this can be done with any exercise.


Choosing progression schemes for the home-based exercise programs

Several of the options discussed in the prior section can be applied to home-based workouts. Some of these are better suited for certain exercises than others.


Instances where it is difficult to incrementally increase the load

This will include exercises such as a lateral raise or a tricep extension done with a backpack or trash bag (filled with water, sand, or soil) where you can load various amounts of weight. With these smaller exercises it is difficult to quickly increase the load as they use relatively small muscle groups. Considerations include:

  • Generally you can start with linear progression (ie, increase reps or weight each session).
    • At home you can actually increase the weight by very small amounts (ie, add a bit more water or 1 more book to a bag) and thus you can engage in linear progression for a long time).
  • When this stalls then move to either:
    • A RPE/RIR approach (take sets to a specific RIR and continue doing this until you can perform 20-30 reps in a set, at this point you can increase the weight further).
    • A volume ramping approach (increase the number of sets each workout and then reset to a lower set count with higher reps or weight).
    • A decreasing rest period approach (if not doing circuits).
    • An adjusting tempo approach (purposefully make the reps take longer to increase the level of difficulty).

Exercises involving larger muscle groups where it is difficult to use sufficient resistance

This will include exercises like squats as most people will not be able to use a barbell with weight plates in a typical home setting. Considerations include:

  • You can start with linear progression at least until 30 reps can be done in a set.
  • After this point options include:
    • Switching to a harder version of the exercise (ie, performing one-legged squats where you sit down onto a stair or a stack of books (you can lower the stack of books over time to increase the difficulty)).
      • Alternatively you can sit on a chair or the bed and place books on the floor to stand on; the more books you place the harder the reps will be.
    • Taking a modified density training approach where you perform a set of different leg exercises in 1 circuit before moving back to the first exercise (ie, perform 30 squats, then 30 lunges, then another 30 squats, etc); if you are fatigued by the final sets this should prove effective.
    • Slowing the tempo of the reps.
    • Using an adjusted myo-reps approach.
      • Take the first set to as many reps as necessary to come close to failure (even if it’s >30).
      • Then take 3-5 deep breaths prior to doing an additional set to a RIR = 1-2.
      • Repeat this for several more mini-sets and take the last set to a RIR = 0.
      • If you do this approach you may want to stop this exercise after 1 full set (where 1 full set equals the first set plus all of the additional myo-reps) rather than repeat this 2 or 3 times even if the workout program above states to perform 2 or 3 sets.
    • Using multiple forms of resistance (ie, wear a backpack with books while holding a box or bag of some sort that has additional weight).

Resistance band exercises where there is a big jump in resistance between the bands

This will include exercises like shoulder presses with bands; perhaps with the easiest band this may seem “too easy” but with the next level band you can only perform 1-2 reps. Considerations include:

  • You can follow the advice in the prior section for exercises where it is difficult to incrementally increase the load.
  • You can make the easier resistance band more difficult by wrapping it more times around your hand or foot as this will generate more tension within the band.
  • You can take advantage of the fact that bands become more difficult as they are stretched further by doing different portions of the rep with different bands.
    • For example, with shoulder presses, you can do a set of partial repetitions in the beginning portion with the heavier band where you stop at the point in the rep where it becomes difficult.
    • Then you can do a set of partial repetitions with the lighter band working on the end portion of the range of motion.

Shorter program example

Here is a basic program that should be effective for beginners who want greater simplicity and/or are very short on time.

an example of a short workout programs
This program only includes 3 exercises per session. With 2 sets for each exercise done 3 times a week, this will yield 6 sets per muscle group per week. If you recall from Lesson 5, while I generally recommend more sets than this, substantial progress can be made with even 4 sets weekly. The different rep ranges each day provide greater variety to help make up for the lack of various exercises. That said, you can choose different squat (or other lower body), push-up, and row variants to use each session if you wish, or you can use the same one each time. Ideally you will pick variations or resistance levels such that you can complete sets in the specified rep ranges while keeping the RIR = 0-1. Since fewer sets are being done it is important to go closer to failure each set.

The resistance training portion of each of these workouts should take <20 minutes. For aerobic exercise you can choose anything as indicated in the other programs listed above. You can simply take each set to within 1 rep of failure and when you get to the top of the rep ranges increase the resistance in some capacity. Over time if you stop making progress you can increase the number of sets each session, and if that becomes too time-consuming you can change to a drop set or myo-rep strategy (detailed in the second-to-last selection in the blue box above). If/when that stops allowing progress you can select different exercise variations and repeat. Eventually you may need to begin a program with greater variety and total training volume, but this one should allow steady progress for a long time.


Conclusion

In this lesson we have gone over example home workout templates as well as general progression schemes and alternate set & rep options. With some trial and error you should be able to select suitable exercises for each portion of the programs that are appropriate for your current level of fitness. These programs can be followed as written taking all sets to a RIR = 0-2 and then progressing when you reach the top of the rep ranges. You can alter them in several ways, either by extending the rep ranges up to 30, substituting different exercises, or utilizing one of the progression schemes or other set & rep options detailed above.

In the next lesson we will go over gym-based workout templates and see how we can apply the above progression schemes and alternate set & rep options in these settings.

Click here to proceed to Lesson 14


References

  1. Angleri V, Ugrinowitsch C, Libardi CA. Are resistance training systems necessary to avoid a stagnation and maximize the gains muscle strength and hypertrophy? Science & Sports. 2020;35(2):65.e1-65.e16. doi: 10.1016/j.scispo.2018.12.013.
  2. Davies TB, Tran DL, Hogan CM, Haff GG, Latella C. Chronic Effects of Altering Resistance Training Set Configurations Using Cluster Sets: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2021 Apr;51(4):707-736. doi: 10.1007/s40279-020-01408-3. Epub 2021 Jan 21. PMID: 33475986.
  3. Duchateau J, Stragier S, Baudry S, Carpentier A. Strength Training: In Search of Optimal Strategies to Maximize Neuromuscular Performance. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2021 Jan;49(1):2-14. doi: 10.1249/JES.0000000000000234. PMID: 33044332.
  4. Jukic I, Van Hooren B, Ramos AG, Helms ER, McGuigan MR, Tufano JJ. The Effects of Set Structure Manipulation on Chronic Adaptations to Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2021 May;51(5):1061-1086. doi: 10.1007/s40279-020-01423-4. Epub 2021 Jan 8. PMID: 33417154.
  5. Kassiano W, de Vasconcelos Costa BD, Nunes JP, Aguiar AF, de Salles BF, Ribeiro AS. Are We Exploring the Potential Role of Specialized Techniques in Muscle Hypertrophy? Int J Sports Med. 2021 Jan 27. doi: 10.1055/a-1342-7708. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33506444.
  6. Latella C, Peddle-McIntyre C, Marcotte L, Steele J, Kendall K, Fairman CM. Strengthening the Case for Cluster Set Resistance Training in Aged and Clinical Settings: Emerging Evidence, Proposed Benefits and Suggestions. Sports Med. 2021 Jul;51(7):1335-1351. doi: 10.1007/s40279-021-01455-4. Epub 2021 May 13. PMID: 33983613.
  7. Rodriguez J, Hanney W, Kolber M, Cheatham S. Utility of Back-Off Sets, Strength and Conditioning Journal. 2021. Mar. Publish Ahead of Print. doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000623.
  8. Schoenfeld B, Grgic J. Can Drop Set Training Enhance Muscle Growth? Strength and Conditioning Journal. 2018 December;40(6):95-98. doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000366.
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