Max Reps vs Percentage of 1 Rep Max: Prescribing the Proper Weight for High Volume Training
A common question I hear in the gym is something along the lines of "so…if I want to get big should I use heavy weight with low reps?" Equally common is the other side of the training coin: "I should use high reps of light weight to get cut…right?" Imagine the look I get when my reply to both questions is that they should try heavy weight and high reps. Most lifters raised on a steady diet of the old faithful 5 sets of 5, 3x10, etc. have a hard time understanding my answer. This is when I launch into a long winded monologue on Volume Training.
I define Volume Training (VT) as some combination of a large number of sets, reps and/or exercises. A common mistake when utilizing Volume Training is selecting too light of a weight due to the large number of sets or a high goal number of reps. Selecting the proper starting weight is key. Most strength routines are prescribed using a percentage of the lifters 1 rep max (%1RM). An example would be a bench press routine calling for 5x5 using 75% 1RM. For Volume Training I prefer to select a weight based on Max Reps (MR) or Weight for Max Reps (WMR). MR would be defined as the maximum amount of reps you are confident you could perform with a specific weight or body weight exercise, while WMR would be the weight you could use to complete a given MR.
Ok, so now you may be thinking, why is this important or necessary when choosing a weight? Lets say I prescribe a squat workout calling for 25 reps with a weight of MR5. Now if you think that means simply choosing a weight and doing 5 sets of 5 =25 then you are missing the point. A weight that you can handle for 5x5 would generally be lighter than a WMR5. You may be able to squat 275 for 5x5, but your WMR5 might actually be 315. Now keep in mind a WMR5 is not a weight you can 'comfortably' do 5 reps - it should be a true maximum reps of 5, requiring that you really have to go 'all out' to get that 5th rep. So using this method you would start your sets with 5 reps of 315 and continue doing sets until you reach 25 total - even if by the conclusion of the workout fatigue has set in and you are only doing sets of 1-2 reps. Chances are you will end up doing more than 5 sets and lifting more poundage over the course of the 25 reps than if you approached it with the intent of doing 5x5. The key is picking a heavy enough weight and doing MR on every set. The goal for this style of training is a large number of total reps over the course of a workout, rather than doing several high rep sets.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the %1RM system is very effective for determining weights on the bench, squat or dead lift, but what about exercises like Dumbbell Shrugs, Kettle Bell Hip Swings, or Weighted Crunches? It is much more difficult to determine a true 1RM, and therefore an accurate percentage of 1RM, on most exercises. I have never met a weightlifter that has any idea what their 1 rep max is on Lateral Raises. It is easier to determine a WMR of 10 on an exercise like lateral raises than it would be to basically guess what your max would be. This is especially useful when programming for supersets. Here is an example of a great shoulder superset that I use regularly:
WMR5 DB Shoulder Press
WMR10 Lateral Raises
WMR15 Rear Delt Flys
WMR20 DB Shrugs
x 4 rounds
Because of the high volume nature of this superset, your shoulders are going to feel very fatigued after the first couple of rounds. Rather than moving down in weight as the sets progress, use the same weight you started with for each exercise, which would be the weight which you could do the prescribed number of reps with when fresh. By the fourth round your reps may look something like: 4 DB Press, 8 Lateral Raise, 12 Rear Delt Flys, 15 DB Shrugs. Even though your reps may have dropped, you will have maintained heavier weights on all exercises.
Another example where WMR is crucial would be a workout such as: 100 KB Hip Swings and 50 Hang Cleans for time. If you just arbitrarily pick a 62lb KB and a 95lb barbell of course the workout will be difficult…but what if you know the recommended WMR is 10 for both exercises? You may be able to swing a 62lb KB 25 times and clean 95lbs for 20 reps. Your actual starting WMR10 should be closer to a 88lb KB and 135lb Barbell, which will make this workout much more challenging and longer with more sets to complete the required reps for each movement. Rather than taking 4-5 rounds to complete, this workout may take anywhere from 10-15 sets before the target total number of reps is reached.
100 Kettle Bell Hip Swings
50 Hang Cleans
-alternate exercises doing Max Reps each set until the target number is reached. Pick a WMR10 for each exercise.
Weight for Max Reps doesn’t have to only be utilized for high volume workouts, it can also be an effect strategy for strength supersets. Here is a great full body workout that is sure to challenge even the most seasoned lifter: Pick a WMR5 for Barbell Squat, 1 arm DB Rows and Incline Barbell Press. Perform 5 rounds of a superset of those 3 exercises, going for Max Reps on each set. Take only enough rest to move from station to station. Chances are by the second round your reps will be less than 5, but continue the circuit until the 5 rounds are complete, even if you are only able to muster a double or single rep per set by the end. This will put your strength and endurance to the test.
A1. Barbell Squat
A2. 1 arm DB Rows (each side)
A3. Incline Barbell Press
x5 rounds, using a WMR5 and doing max reps on each set
So now you have three ways to apply this method: for single body part supersets, full body high volume workouts, and full body strength circuits. With a better idea of a proper starting weight you will get so much more benefit out of high volume training than if you simply did a bunch of high rep sets.