The Rep Goal System: Maximize Gains, Never Waste A Set

The Rep Goal System: Maximize Gains, Never Waste A Set

Updated June 11, 2020

Never waste a set. This is the driving mechanism behind the Rep Goal System.

Progression, or progressive overload, is the magic that drives muscle gains. To build muscle, you have to focus on getting a lot stronger than you are now. The question becomes: what is the best way to do this?

While there are many ways to “progress”, not all of them assure a lifter that optimal progress is being made. For example, when a set calls for a given number of reps, say 8 to 10, and you stop that set when you reach this range – have you really pushed yourself as hard as possible on this set and maximized the muscle building process?

Perhaps, perhaps not. The best way to assure that a given set is maximized is by pushing that set for as many reps as possible. Not only does this seem intuitively correct, but research also backs up this training approach.

Rep Goal System and Research on Sets

Some of the research on set effectiveness indicates that when training at 70% of your one rep max and above, it takes 5 or more reps per set to recruit a maximal number of muscle fibers. In addition, when training above 85%, a maximum number of muscle fibers are automatically recruited.

Furthermore, the Carpinelli meta-analysis of 21 resistance training studies concluded the following:

  • Time Under Tension – Time under tension was an important factor in the muscle building process.
  • Near Maximal Effort – Time under tension was only important when coupled with a near maximal, or maximal effort. Simply stated, this means when you pushed a set for as many reps as possible.
  • Resistance – Resistance level didn’t matter if time under tension was substantial enough, and sets were pushed to at least a near maximal level.

This information can seem rather confusing until you think it through. The bottom line is this…to build muscle you need to perform sets that focus on a near maximal, or maximal number of reps per set, while also providing a decent amount of time under tension.

While resistance involved in the set doesn’t matter “per se”, the mere fact that you are pushing sets for as many reps as possible reveals that progressive overload is required. You are not wasting sets, but rather maximizing each one.

If should also be noted that average set time under tension is not important if overall time under tension is appropriate. Let’s take a look at what this means.

Total Time Under Tension

Let’s use bench presses as an example, since it is such a popular exercise choice. Let’s assume (for the sake of example) that it requires 8 to 10 reps per set to achieve a quality amount of time under tension. Over the course of 3 sets this would add up to a total of 24 to 30 reps.

The same total time under tension could theoretically be achieved by utilizing the following set and rep schemes:

  • 5 sets x 5 reps = 25 total reps
  • 6 sets x 4-5 reps = 24 to 30 total reps
  • 7 sets x 4 reps = 28 total reps
  • 8 sets x 3 reps = 24 total reps
  • 9 sets x 3 reps = 27 total reps
  • 10 sets x 3 reps = 30 total reps

While each of these set and rep schemes will provide a challenging workout, and an appropriate amount of time under tension, they lack an important factor – each set is not pushed near maximally. What is considered “near maximally?” The following is our working definition:

  • Near maximal sets – Push a set for as many reps as possible, stopping that set when you feel like you might fail on the next rep, or when your form starts to severely deteriorate.

Now, it should be stated that a lifter is not required to push sets “near maximally” to make solid gains. Armies of lifters have built muscle mass on 5×5 programs, etc. These are challenging programs that do not require a near maximal effort on each set, but they do focus on progressive overload.

With that said, pushing each set maximally assures us that we are not wasting sets. We are doing everything we can to build as much muscle as possible, as quickly as possible. Near maximal exertion on sets, as the Carpinelli meta-analysis has revealed, is the most optimal way to train.

How much of a benefit on paper does this provide over non-maximal sets with an equivalent time under tension? No one can say for certain. All we really know is that by pushing each set as hard as possible, we are:

  1. Progressing as rapidly as possible.
  2. Maximizing every set.

This is the basis for the Rep Goal System.

The Rep Goal System: Maximize Gains, Never Waste A Set

The Rep Goal System Overview

The Massive Iron Rep Goal System is an extremely flexible progression approach that allows you to maximize time in the gym by making every set count. It can be used with nearly any set or rep scheme, and in just about any existing training program.

Sets and Reps in Bodybuilding Magazines

How many times have you flipped through the pages of a bodybuilding magazine, only to find workouts filled with exercise listings that look like this?

  • Bench Press – 3 x 10
  • Dumbbell Bench Press – 3 x 10
  • Flyes – 3 x 15

Or perhaps you’ve seen a pyramid style of training presented, something that looks like this:

  • Squats – 5 x 20, 15, 10, 8, 6
  • Leg Press – 4 x 20, 15, 12, 10
  • Leg Extensions – 3 x 15, 12, 10

What’s the problem? The problem with workouts listed like this is that they don’t address the most important part of training…progression, or when to add weight. Workouts like this also don’t tell you if you need to add weight from set to set, or how hard to push on each set.

This has been the industry standard for decades, and a poor one at that. What good is a list of exercises when they are presented without a detailed explanation on how to use them effectively? A tool is only useful if you know how to use it with precision to achieve the best results.

Workouts listings like this do nothing but create confusion. That’s where the Rep Goal System comes into play. It allows you to take any workout from any source and turn it into a routine that will allow you to effectively build muscle and strength.

Rep Goal System Basics

Here are the basics of the Rep Goal System.

  1. Maximize Every Set. For every set you will push yourself for as many reps as possible, stopping that set when you either feel like your form might break down, or you feel like you might fail on the next rep. You will never waste a set.
  2. Same Weight. Use the same weight for every set of a given exercise. Do not change weight from set to set. This will allow you to focus on performance and progression, and reduces the guessing games involved with wondering when you should add weight to the bar.
  3. Set a Rep Goal. Set a rep goal total for the number of sets are you are performing, based on your specific goals. This goal total might vary from exercise to exercise. This sounds complicated, but is really rather simple. We will explore it more in the next section.

Rep Goal Totals

Rep goal totals are simple…add up the total number of reps completed for a given exercise, and that’s your rep total. For example, if you’re bench press session today looked like:

  • Bench Press – 225 x 11, 8, 6, 5 reps

You performed 4 sets for a total of 29 reps. 29 is your rep total.

With an understanding of how many reps you typically perform with a given exercise, it’s time to set a rep goal total. Using the bench press example, a reasonable 4 set goals could be 25 or 30 reps.

The point of these goals is to tell you when to add weight to the bar. This weight will be added the next time you hit the gym and perform this exercise.

Using the bench press example, if your goal was a 25 rep total, because you were able to perform 29 total reps, you would add weight. On the other hand, if your goal had been 30 total reps, you would continue using the same weight (in this case 225 pounds) until you reached 30 total reps.

Confused? Here are more examples:

3 Set Rep Goal Total Example

For this example you find a workout that seems appealing, and it calls for:

  • Squats – 3 sets x 10 reps

You decide to use a rep goal of 25 total reps for the 3 sets, perhaps because you do not like higher rep squat sets. It would have been perfectly acceptable to use a 30, or even 35 rep goal total. The rep goal total itself is somewhat arbitrary, as long as there is an appropriate amount of total training volume (reps) for a given exercise. The important thing is that you know when to progress, and that the rep goal total fits your needs.

So, with a goal of 25 total reps, your first week of training looks like this:

  • Squats – 275 pounds x 10, 7, 5 reps = 22 total reps.

You managed 22 total reps. This is 3 reps shy of your goal, so for week 2 you will continue to use 275 pounds.

  • Week 2 – Squats, 275 pounds x 11, 8, 6 reps = 25 total reps. Rep goal achieved: ADD WEIGHT next week.
  • Week 3 – Squats, 280 pounds x 10, 7, 5 reps = 22 total reps. Rep goal missed: do NOT add weight next week.

4 Set Rep Goal Total Example

For this example, let’s use barbell curls. A typical magazine workout might call for:

  • Barbell Curls – 4 sets x 8-12 reps

For barbell curls you prefer higher reps, so you decide upon a 40 rep goal total for these 4 sets. Your first 4 week of training looks like this:

  • Week 1 – Barbell Curl, 75 pounds x 13, 11, 10, 7 reps = 41 reps. Rep goal achieved: ADD WEIGHT next week.
  • Week 2 – Barbell curl, 80 pounds x 12, 10, 7, 6 reps = 35 reps. Rep goal missed: do NOT add weight next week.
  • Week 3 – Barbell curl, 80 pounds x 13, 11, 8, 6 reps = 38 reps. Rep goal missed: do NOT add weight next week.
  • Week 4 – Barbell Curl, 80 pounds x 14, 11, 10, 8 reps = 43 reps. Rep goal achieved: ADD WEIGHT next week.

5 Set Rep Goal Total Example

5x5s are a very common training approach. In this example we’re going to morph a 5×5 for barbell rows into 5 sets with a goal of 30 total reps. Your first 3 week of training looks like this:

  • Week 1 – Barbell Rows, 225 pounds x 8, 7, 6, 5, 4 reps = 30 reps. Rep goal achieved: ADD WEIGHT next week.
  • Week 2 – Barbell Rows, 230 pounds x 8, 7, 5, 5, 4 reps = 29 reps. Rep goal missed: do NOT add weight next week.
  • Week 3 – Barbell Rows, 230 pounds x 9, 7, 6, 5, 4 reps = 31 reps. Rep goal achieved: ADD WEIGHT next week.

Setting Rep Goal Totals with Compound and Isolation Movements

When setting rep goals it’s helpful if you look at averages. For example, 20 reps over 3 sets is a 6.67 rep per set average. Compound exercises are generally performed best in the 5-12 rep range, while isolation lifts work better around 8-15 reps.

  • Compound Exercises – Use a 5-12 rep average
  • Isolation Exercises – Use a 8-15 rep average

Keep in mind that there is no “prefect” or “magic” rep range. As long as you are making progress and using a reasonable amount of time under tension you are on the right track. Low rep isolation exercises tend to force the use of real heavy weight, which can make the lift feel awkward and sloppy.

On the other hand, higher rep compound movements require a lighter weight, which is not always optimal for beginners to early intermediate lifters. If you are going to use compound lifts in the 12-20 rep range, make sure you’ve already built up a substantial amount of strength first.

There are always exceptions, of course. The 20 rep squat is a very potent muscle and strength building choice.

How Much Weight to Add

When you reach your rep goal add 5 pounds. There is no need to rush and load up the bar. If you are truly as strong as you think you are, then adding 5 pounds per workout will add a quality amount of size and strength over the course of a year.

Don’t try to rush progression. There is more to lifting than muscular strength and size. When training you are also working your joints, ligaments, connective tissue and central nervous system (CNS). If you are to reach your end goals uninjured, it’s best to take small, consistent steps forward.

Also consider this…if you “only” add 5 pounds to your bench press once every third week, you will still add over 80 pounds to your total in a single year. This is an impressive jump forward.

I have seen many natural athletes reach a 350 pound bench press, but very few achieve this total in under 3 year’s time. Stick to the only add 5 pounds rule. This isn’t a sprint.


The author

Steve Shaw
Steve Shaw is the original founder of Muscle and Brawn, an experienced powerlifter with over 31 years experience pumping iron. During competition he’s recorded a 602.5lb squat, 672.5lb deadlift and a 382.5lb bench press.

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