Exercise Schemas: What’s the best rep, set, and weight plan to use?

A Quick Update:

In last weeks article – What is Body Composition? – I said that not being able to regulate your autonomic functions was an indicator of brain death. I wanted to briefly expand on that statement to highlight the stringent testing physicians go through in order to make this diagnosis, so that I don’t give the impression it is a simple or inconsequential matter for anyone involved. Here is a summarized, lay-person friendly version of the Criteria for Diagnosis of Brain Death as provided by the U.S. National Institutes of Health on their website (link in the Resources section below):

1. Identification of the cause of coma, and determination that it is irreversible (incl. clinical or neuro-imaging diagnosis of an injury compatible with the diagnosis);

2. Exclusion of any condition which might look like brain death during the examination, but does not indicate brain death (such as shock, hypothermia, and certain drugs);

3. Failure of multiple neurological examinations such as (but not limited to): non-response to stimuli (verbal, pain, etc.), absence of spontaneous movement, no pupil response to light, no reflex response (gag, cough, etc.), no response to drugs known to cause autonomic changes (such as atropine causing heart rate increase);

4. Failure of an apnea test, which determines whether or a not a person will breathe on their own once the levels of Carbon Dioxide in their blood reaches a certain level.

Doctors are awesome, and these tests can take days to complete. They will not pronounce someone brain dead without incredibly conclusive evidence. Thanks, all you doctor-y types!

Intro to Rep Schemas

Lets start with a quick definition to get your mental juices in motion:

Schema (noun): a representation of a plan or theory in the form of an outline or model.

If you’re in a tech job you’ve almost certainly heard this word used to refer to programming plans, document formats, and similar constructions. In those cases you’re using a schema to define how you will approach a given problem to find the best possible solution, or how a document will be laid out so that it can be read in the most efficient manner. The key here is the idea of building the best plan possible to accomplish your goals.

It shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to see how a schema can be applied to the world of fitness, and in fact a good trainer does just that. When it comes to resistance work – either lifting weights or bodyweight movements – you typically hear about three different schemas for determining Sets, Reps, and Weight. These are all based on the ideas of high, medium, and low weight being coupled with high, medium, and low reps. Keep in mind that “high” and “low” weight are relative to the athlete doing the workout. I’ll be referencing “1RM” or “1-Rep Max”, which is defined as the maximum weight an athlete can move for at least one rep in any given movement. The 1RM usually varies from exercise to exercise, even for the same person.

For each schema, I’ll use John Smith as our example person. John has a max Deadlift of 300lbs, a max Bench Press of 200lbs, and a max Clean of 150lbs.

Light Load: High Rep + Low Weight

Generally used for building endurance or promoting weight loss, this schema focuses on working the muscle fibers responsible for short-twitch, long-term action (Type I, or Red Muscle) over a longer term in order to lengthen the “burn” you feel when exercising. In this schema, you would do 2-3 sets of 15 or more reps using 40-50% of your 1RM in weight. If John Smith wanted to build his Bench Press endurance, he might do an example workout of 3 sets of 15 reps at 100lbs, with 45-60 seconds rest between sets.

Heavy Load: Low Rep + High Weight

Generally used to build overall strength in individual movements in a shorter amount of time. Combining weights around 80-90% of your 1RM with 4-6 sets of 1-5 reps each forces your body to work much harder on every rep than at lower weights. You generally need more rest between sets to recover the necessary power to finish each set, because you are mainly recruiting fast-twitch, short-term muscle fibers (Type IIa/x, White/Pink Muscle). These fibers can create a lot of force per contraction, but they fatigue quickly and need more rest than your endurance muscles to continue performing. Going back to John Smith, to increase his overall Deadlift strength he might do: 5 sets of 3 reps at 255lbs (85% 1RM), with 2-3 minutes of rest between sets.

Medium Load: Medium Rep + Medium Weight

Our last schema is sometimes called the “Hypertrophy Workout”. It mixes the Endurance and Strength schemas so that you complete 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps using a weight around 65-75% of your 1RM. This schema is a little debated, because the oft stated goal is to increase muscle size using this method, however the research doesn’t entirely support the claim that this method is the best one for accomplishing that goal (more on that in a little bit). It’s a good schema for overall muscle strengthening at moderate weights, so if John Smith decided he wants a stronger Clean while also lengthening his workout overall, he might do 3 sets of 10 reps at 75lbs to good effect.

The Truth About Fat Loss, Strength Gain, & Muscle Hypertrophy

Here’s the quick and dirty skinny on lifting weights: it’s awesome! Studies have shown time and time again that lifting weights, when done in a controlled and intelligent fashion, is absolutely fantastic for your health and well-being. Male or female, old or young, fitness buff or not….those things Do Not Matter. Resistance training is good for you, and you should be doing it.

If we dive a little deeper, we can easily define the most common goals the majority of lifters have for picking up the bar:

  • Fat Loss
  • Strength Gain
  • Muscle Hypertrophy/Growth
  • Endurance Training

For each one of these goals, there are some guiding principles that allow you to accomplish them. The schemas will support these principles to a lesser or greater extent, but we’ll talk about that in the next section.

For Fat Loss, you’re looking to burn calories over time, creating a caloric deficit between what you take in via food and what you work off in the gym (or wherever). Whether it’s many lighter reps or a long period of time, or a few heavy reps over a short period of time, you are still burning the calories to move that weight around. The caloric burn may differ slightly between heavy- and light- weight workouts because of other factors – such as location, whole body involvement, and weather conditions – the actual caloric burn from the lifting will be about the same.

For Strength Gain, you need to tax the muscles above what they normally deal with, in such a way as to create small bits of muscle damage. This damage is called micro-trauma, and is what kicks your body into gear to build more muscle, by repairing the damage you do while lifting weights. Don’t let the words fool you, this is a Good Thing! Without the micro-trauma of resistance training, your muscles will either remain stagnant in strength or, even worse, begin to weaken as time goes on. Dietary protein is what helps rebuild muscle tissue during strength training, so diet plays a role here, too.

For Muscle Hypertrophy/Growth, what you’re trying to do is increase the thickness of your muscle fibers so that they appear fuller. You need two things for this: microtrauma gained from resistance training and a diet with surplus calories in the form of proteins/fats to fuel the muscle growth. Generally speaking, it is difficult or impossible to see significant muscle growth while eating a caloric deficit. Both the Strength and Hypertrophy schemas have been shown to increase muscle size in athletes, but the Endurance schema doesn’t. This is likely due to the difference in muscle fibers being used as the primary resource in each type of training. With Strength/Hypertrophy you’re using the Type II fibers, which are much more prone to muscle growth than the Type I fibers used for Endurance schemas.

For Endurance training, you’re looking to activate those Type I/Red Muscle fibers over a long period of time. This causes them to become more acclimated to longer term use, increasing blood flow and the aerobic glycolysis process (using carb’s for energy). The down side is that this training usually creates a high caloric deficit, and can lead to weight loss from both body fat and muscle mass. Your muscles will get stronger (in a sense), but they will also become leaner.

So What Do I Actually Do?

You might be asking yourself: which schema is the best? How in the heck do I decide which one I should use? Help me, Obi-wan Chrisobi, you’re my only hope!

The answer is: None of them are the best!

Though it may seem to be indicated that Strength athletes should only do Low Rep/High Weight and Endurance should only do High Rep/Low Weight, the truth is that it’s an intelligent mixture of methods that has the best results. Below I’ve called out each major goal, the schema mix that should best support that goal, and an example workout plan for working towards each one.  For each plan, you’ll be given a percentage of Total Exercise Volume (TEV) which indicates how much of your workout should be made up of a given schema. Don’t worry, we’ll talk about how to use these plans after they’re laid out.

Goal 1:  – Optimal Fat Loss

  • Heavy Load: 15% TEV
  • Medium Load: 70% TEV
  • Light Load: 15% TEV

Goal 2: Increase Strength

  • Heavy Load: 80% TEV
  • Medium Load: 20% TEV
  • Light Load: 0% TEV

Goal 3: Endurance

  • Heavy Load: 10% TEV
  • Medium Load: 20% TEV
  • Light Load: 70% TEV

Goal 4: Building Muscle

  • Heavy Load: 40% TEV
  • Medium Load: 60% TEV
  • Light Load: 0% TEV

How to Use the Schemas and Total Exercise Volume

This is going to take some math, and a little higher-level problem solving, but I have faith in you! First lets talk about how to find the Total Exercise Volume (TEV) for any given workout. We’re going to use John Smith from earlier, who is doing Deadlifts. He completes 3 sets of 5 reps at 200lbs per rep, and we can find his TEV by multiplying [3 x 5 x 200] = [1500lbs] of work completed. We now know two things about John’s workout: he completed 1500lbs of work, and he did so at ~67% of his 1RM weight.

This is a workout somewhere between Heavy and Medium work, not quite fitting one of our Goal breakdowns above, and maybe not quite as efficient as it could be.

So, lets say that John wants to get much more specific in how he partitions his lifting so that he works towards the “Building Muscle” goal. Research suggests that in order to best build muscle, our total volume lifted should be 40% Heavy Load and 60% Medium Load. We know that a Heavy Load is about 85% of your 1RM, while a Medium Load is about 70% of your 1RM, and John’s Deadlift 1RM is 300lbs.

Here’s a workout that would meet all our requirements, and get close to the same Volume John was doing before:

  • 3 sets of 1 rep at 255 lbs (Heavy; 90 seconds between sets)
  • 1 set of 5 reps at 225 lbs (Medium; 45-60 seconds between sets)
  • Volume: 1,890 lbs (40.5% Heavy, 59.5% Medium)

You’ll always need to adjust the Volume target to get to your TEV and %1RM goals, but that’s okay. The target acts as a starting point, not a hard and fast rule, so err on the side of following the TEV split. When in doubt, go over the target rather than under it, because it’s been found that Volume plays a huge role in realizing your workout goals.

In Closing…

There is a lot of science behind working out in the most effective manner. Many different factors go into figuring out the best method to meet an individual’s goals, and those goals will vary as time goes on. You can spend a lot of time getting very specific about how you want to program, and the more specific you get, the more details you need to manage.

At the highest level, the workout Schemas of lifting Heavy, Medium, or Light will direct you towards a plan that supports goals of endurance or strength gain.  This level uses your 1 Rep Max as the driving force for your programming.

At the next level, setting a Volume goal within a specific Schema can give you a target to shoot for with your reps, sets, and weights that is more specific than just using your 1RM. This can be tricky, because Volume targets are fluid thing that should evolve over time.

At the most detailed level, partitioning your workouts so that you do Heavy, Medium, and Light lifting all within the same workout will help you more specifically work towards goals like Muscle Building or Fat Loss. This level requires a fair bit of thought and work, which is not for the faint of heart (or low of time). A good trainer can help you at this level, if they’re familiar with the methodology, to save you time and (potential) headache.

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Article Resources:

Goila, Ajay Kumar; Pawar, Mridula. “The diagnosis of brain death”. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2772257/

Campos GE1, Luecke TJ, Wendeln HK, Toma K, Hagerman FC, Murray TF, Ragg KE, Ratamess NA, Kraemer WJ, Staron RS. “Muscular adaptations in response to three different resistance-training regimens: specificity of repetition maximum training zones.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=12436270.

Nicholas A. Burd, Cameron J. Mitchell, Tyler A. Churchward-Venne, Stuart M. Phillips. Bigger weights may not beget bigger muscles: evidence from acute muscle protein synthetic responses after resistance exercise . Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 2012.

Jackson NP, Hickey MS, Reiser RF 2nd. High resistance/low repetition vs. low resistance/high repetition training: effects on performance of trained cyclists . J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Feb;21(1):289-95.

Buitrago S, Wirtz N, Yue Z, Kleinöder H, Mester J. Effects of load and training modes on physiological and metabolic responses in resistance exercise . Eur J Appl Physiol. 2012 Jul;112(7):2739-48.