In Part 1 of this series I explained how our choices affect our athletic ability throughout life and how trainers need to be careful to not apply methods designed for athletes to fitness clients who do not have an athletic background.

This time we will go over the proper use of using programming often associated with athletes for the fitness client.

I touched on the “more is better” mentality of our culture in part 1, and how it often affects our fitness and performance development negatively.

If plyometrics are good, we might as well do more of them and alternate them with five more exercises to elicit even greater responses, right? Well, hold on there Mr. Give Me All You Got trainer. You need to step back and look at what is actually appropriate for the trainee and it turns out there are actual guidelines for optimal results for things like plyometrics as well as for reps.


So you sit down to write the first workout for your new client. He’s coming off a shoulder injury and common knowledge tells you to start him with something like 3 sets of 10-15 reps. The problem with this “common knowledge” is that there is a fundamental and obvious problem with doing this though. High reps cause muscle soreness and believe it or not, 10-15 reps is a higher rep range.

Provided your client even comes to the second session after making him so sore, you now have to figure out if the pain he has in his bad shoulder is standard DOMS or from more trauma caused by the workout.

Starting the client at 5 reps and under, at times, is a more appropriate plan for a client recovering from injury. You can build muscle and strength adequately in this rep range with moderate weights in someone who has not been training consistently.

The Forgotten Base

Young trainers learn about doing three sets of ten to twelve reps and naturally conclude that high rep training for beginners is best and that the next logical step and ClientsLikeAthletesprogression would be increasing the volume and reps and eventually introducing some sets to technical failure.

This is not what many strength and conditioning coaches do with athletes and this would only make sense if you did not know that there are set and rep ranges to elicit different neurological and physiological responses.

Without getting into a debate about being a rep off in my ranges —1-3 reps focuses almost exclusively on strength, 3-5 reps works on strength and begins to cross into the hypertrophy zone, and 6-10 reps is purely hypertrophy. Anything higher than 10 reps is for muscular endurance and needs to be understood as such.

So what is the point in having a new trainee do multiple sets of 10-15 reps? Does a new fitness client need to develop muscular endurance? Absolutely, but muscular endurance is defined as the ability to sustain repeated contraction against a resistance for an extended period of time and there is more than one way to develop this.

What are we trying to accomplish with a new trainee? We need to give them adequate strength and soft tissue durability to build upon. If we refer to the rep ranges above, the obvious best choice to build this strength base while building muscle is 5-6 reps. You can use up to and around 83% or a client’s hypothetical 1RM for 6 reps and only 75% of their 1RM for ten reps. Which one do you think will make him stronger and teach his neuromuscular system to be more efficient?

So how do we develop that muscular endurance that I mentioned earlier? More sets and shorter rest times. By having clients perform compound movements for 4-6 sets of 5-6 reps, taking 45- 60 second rest times, muscular endurance can be developed while allowing the nervous system to continue to fire adequately with every repeated effort. This in turn builds greater strength.

Reps can also be slowed down by using this method to help build greater connective tissue strength and durability without over fatiguing the muscle.

Lower rep ranges are not just for the athletes trying to build greater levels of strength for their sport.

Next Best Program?

Personal trainers like to write up programs that look really cool for their clients and wow their colleagues with how much they understand systems of training. This is great for the trainers ego and often terrible for the client’s body. Programming needs to be specific to the training age and ability of the client.

Progressive overload is usually the safest and most logical choice for a new trainee. There is no reason to further explain the benefits but the limitations need to be mentioned as well. Eventually, the client will stall in his or her progress. If this was not true than I would be a 9,000 pound squatter.

When progress halts, other training systems and philosophies need to adopted in the client’s training taken from athletic strength and conditioning.

The WaveAthleteClientsWaveCycle

A wave cycle is a great system to ensure continued success gained from a more traditional linear cycle found in classic
progressive overload.

Instead of alternating the increase in reps, sets, and weight choose one rep and set range and increase and decrease the weight
in a structured cycle

For example (for any given exercise):

[clear_floats][alert]Day 1 – 100 pounds / 5-6 reps

Day 2 – 105 pounds / 5-6 reps

Day 3 – 110 pounds / 5-6 reps

Day 5 – 115 pounds / 5- 6 reps

Day 6 – 105 pounds / 5-6 reps

Day 7 – 110 pounds / 5-6 reps

Day 8 – 115 pounds / 5-6 reps

Day 9 – 120 pounds / 5 -6 reps[/alert][clear_floats]

The cycle could continue to increase the weight from here or keep the weight the same and manipulate another factor, such as the amount of sets, rest time, or dropping the reps down while increasing weight. This could eventually be used to determine a 3 rep estimated max to develop a percentage based program off of. Increasing the weight in a slow progressive manner like this will ensure you do not push the client too far and too fast. There is no reason to attempt a 3 rep max on a client if he is still getting stronger from working at 5 reps.

Wrapping Up

There is less advanced programming when dealing with fitness clients and athletes than most trainer think. Instead we need to step back and look at fundamentals and the physiological effect of the methods we prescribe and examine why we really need and use them. Throw out what is useless and stick to the least volume of stimulus needed to make a change in the client. Trust me, they will progress much farther for much longer this way.


Photo Credit:

Jesse Irizarry

Jesse Irizarry is a strength and conditioning coach with a drastic variety of experience ranging from working in a lucrative New York health club to a D1 collegiate football program. Jesse startedJdi Performance to coach athletes and motivated clientele alike to reach their potentialand ignore the nonsense being presented as training. He is on a personal vendetta against this nonsense. Commercial gyms hate him.


News collects all the stories you want to read