Forget Sets and Reps and Get Results

Ever heard the saying “What gets measured gets managed”? It turns out that this does not hold true for everyone. At least it doesn’t for me anymore.

I’m kind of a strength training nerd. That’s why I started this blog after all. I love geeking out with training programs. I also give away a free workout log to all my Neat Newsletter subscribers. So you might guess that I’m a big fan of the whole numbers game.

Do 5 five sets of 5 (5×5), 3×8, pyramid sets (for example 2-3-5-3-2 for pistol squats is excellent), …

My perspective has changed. Abandoning the meticulous planning, my workouts got exciting again.

The reason why this works so well has a lot to do with cooking …

Systems vs. Recipes

Within a few months after moving out of my parents’ house, I learned to cook from scratch and was able to cook tasty meals for myself and friends without using any kind of recipe.

This worked because of two reasons:

  1. I was not allowed to use my mum’s kitchen for any serious cooking. My mum can get a little OCD when it comes to keeping the house clean 😉 (I love you mum!). But ever since I was a teenager, I loved watching Jamie Oliver shows on weekend mornings.
  2. Immediately after moving out, I started trying every Jamie Oliver recipe I could get my hands on. Then I discovered Jules Clancy’s blog Stonesoup (love her simple 5-ingredient-recipes). I tried a different recipe almost every day for a few weeks.

I had a lot of motivation because of my long suppressed love for cooking and I learned by copying what the pros did. Because I had excellent sources of information, which not only taught recipes but transferable skills (knife skills, seasoning to taste, creating simple one-pan dishes, timings for cooking different veggies and meat, etc.), I was soon able to “wing” my cooking and create meals with whatever was in the fridge.

This, and the amount of time in the kitchen I (happily) invested paid dividends because I feel very comfortable in the kitchen now.

By being exposed to many recipes and actually trying them firsthand, I automatically extracted useful methods that are applicable to cooking in general.

I discovered the system.

The principle of gaining confidence in a certain field and ultimately achieving intellectual independence is well-known. Sadly, this is rarely seen in the realms of personal fitness.

There are detailed programs with built-in periodization, exact exercises and numbers for sets, reps and rest intervals. On the other side of the spectrum, there are training templates (using movement categories and perceived levels of intensity). Both have their places.

As a beginner — be it cooking, strength training, languages or coding software — it is wise to follow recipes and clear instructions from more experienced people. With enough repetition, your level of proficiency rises and you will soon discover a system that you can universally apply to most situations.

Side note: Of course, in a very high-level environment (think molecular gastronomy or training elite athletes for the Olympics), you will need again very detailed recipes and scientific methods. But, between us weekend warriors, good is good enough.

When you start from scratch, it is well worth your time to try different training regimens, dabble into a few training modalities and maybe join a gym and attend a few classes there.

After going through that evolution, you might wanna try to tinker a bit with the recipes — add a splash of lemon here and there, use pecans instead of walnuts and generally do the seasoning with your fingers rather than using tiny measuring spoons (swap out exercises, try a different rep scheme for deadlifts, etc.).

Ultimately, you might wanna try to create your own on programs or just go into a training session with no plan — just throwing into the pan whatever you’ve got sitting in the fridge.

Compliance vs. Perfection

Because of the emerging epidemic coined “infobesity” (information overload through media, internet blogs, podcasts, etc.), everyone thinks their training has to be elite or science-based.

Sure, that training protocol you got from a peer-reviewed paper off of PubMed might be absolutely perfect and can provide you with the fastest and most significant results. The real question is: Will you actually follow through with it?

The compliance rate (i.e. out of a 100 people starting a program, how many will go through with it?) is a highly underestimated quality in personal fitness routines. I’d even argue it is the most important factor.

The pragmatic approach, meaning the method with the higher probability of execution, will always beat the perfect approach.

That’s why you should not do what elite athletes or celebrity actors do. Sure, if you have the resources to hire a personal trainer and have your career at stake, compliance is not an issue. It’s a given.

The picture changes completely for the Average Joe. I cannot follow elite programs, because I have a 9-to-5 job, non-work related responsibilities and a social life. It may also happen that, sometimes, I am not in the mood for training. I have nobody to kick my butt in this case.

Therefore, the best routine is the one you do. It’s cliché advice, but it’s true.

The Downside of the Numbers Game

Counting your reps and sets is not a bad thing. Puppies and kittens won’t die if you do it.

Sets and reps are simply a way to gauge intensity and volume.

If someone tells you to do 3×20 (3 sets of 20 reps) of an exercise, that’s simply saying that you should train the exercise with higher volume. You’ll work on strength endurance, get a lot of blood pumping through the muscles and joints and will probably be sore the next day.

In contrast, 5×3 will be high intensity (assuming you are doing an exercise you can only perform for 4-5 repetitions). You’ll work on near max strength and, if you are not new to strength training, will probably leave the workout a bit fresher and won’t feel much soreness the next day.

But counting reps and sets falls short in a few categories:

  1. Sets and reps are only part of the picture. We haven’t spoken about tempo (how fast are you lifting and lowering the weight and do you stop for a second at the top of the rep or are you bouncing back immediately?) and rest intervals. So for accurate measures, logging your workout gets a lot more tedious.
  2. There is a tendency to do too much or too little. If you planned for a squat workout with 3×5, but could have easily banged out 4×6, was this workout effective? Or if you managed to do only 5, 4 and 3 reps, are you frustrated and disappointed after the workout? Are you forcing the last rep while compromising form?
  3. The focus should be on the quality of the movement. It’s easy to just bang out a set and force a rep when you try to reach a certain number.

Counting may be necessary for beginners to have some tangibles to gauge their workouts. The same is true for elite athletes. And it is a good way to communicate intensity and volume when writing programs for other people.

But I have come to the conclusion that it is superfluous for my usual needs and probably for a lot of other people as well.

However, you don’t wanna do just “stuff”. There has to be a guiding system in order to make educated training decisions.

My Favorite Training Template

I assume that most people who prepare their own food don’t follow a specific recipe for their day-to-day meals. The pragmatic approach is to go by a simple template. 2 handfuls of vegetables, palm-sized piece of protein and a cupped handful of carbs is my usual dinner.

The same holds true for training.

Loyal readers might already know this: I’m a big Max Shank fan boy. I followed his training system, Ultimate Athleticism, for a while now. In its essence, it’s this:

  • Warm-up block with mobility drills (like my Loaded Yoga) and a few easy ballistic and low impact movements (swings, get-ups, goblet squats)
  • Strength block A: Upper push (e.g. push-ups, handstand, bench press) + lower pull (i.e. hinge movements like deadlifts, swings and jumps)
  • Strength block B: Upper pull (pull-ups, bent-over row, bodyweight rows, front levers) + lower push (i.e. squats like pistols, goblet or front and back squats)
  • Mix in mobility drills for active rest in your strength blocks. A good idea is to have a hip-focused drill (like a deep lunge) and a shoulder-focused drill (thoracic bridge)
  • Short conditioning block at the end of the session (usually some form of HIIT like sprints, kettlebell complexes, loaded carries or a variation of the Super Quick Workouts)
  • Divide training session into time blocks rather than checking off reps and sets

The key advice that I never took seriously was using time blocks instead of counting reps and sets. I always thought I knew better and mixed this with meticulously measuring my workouts. Instead, my recent training session looked like this:

10 minutes, catch breath as needed, focus on loosening up what’s tight

Six-point rock
Turkish get-ups
Goblet squats w/ prying
Two-handed swings

Strength Block A
15 minutes

Easy push-ups (hands placed on my desk)
Double kettlebell hover deadlifts (hold for 1 second every time the KBs are 1 inch above the ground)
Downdog + deep lunge with rotation mobility drill

Strength Block B
15 minutes

Single kettlebell row
Double kettlebell front squats
Six-point rock (mobility)

Conditioning: Honestly couldn’t be bothered.

I simply did the movements I was hot for (like DKB front squats and DKB hover deadlifts) and the exercises I needed to do (elevated push-ups and lots of rows to reclaim my shoulder health).

I had started a timer and did the movements I drafted out 5 minutes prior to the workout.

I simply stopped a set when I felt the form getting slightly wobbly. Then, I moved on to the second exercise in the block and repeated. I used the mobility drills strategically to recover and improve mobility for the next round. Shake out legs and arms and start again.

I repeated this until the timer on my phone beeped. I was focused like never before and gassed out after the second strength block.

The funny thing: I had to force myself not to count. It’s such an ingrained behavior. I had to purposely miscount (I counted numbers like 13, 21, 5, 7, 19 in my head) to forget the reps and focus on the movement.

After a few years of training under my belt, I knew what the heavy strength sets were (double kettlebell lower body movements) and what the “pumping” moves were (rows and push-ups). I didn’t need to count to know what the level of intensity was and when I should stop a set.

The best part about this workout was its unemotional nature. I went through the movements with purpose but no judgement. I just moved for 45 minutes, lifted something relatively heavy up and down a few times and felt great afterwards. It was the most productive workout I had in months.